What the First Driverless Car Fatality Means for Self-Driving Tech

A crash that killed a driver in a Tesla Model S electric car in self-driving mode has called into question the safety of driverless vehicle technology. This week, federal officials announced the launch of a formal investigation into the accident.

The crash occurred on May 7 in Williston, Florida, when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla, and the car failed to apply the brakes, the New York Times reported. It is the first known fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle.

What the First Driverless Car Fatality Means for Self-Driving Tech

In a statement from Tesla that was posted on the company's blog Thursday (June 30), the automaker noted that the fatality was the first "in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated." [Photos: The Robotic Evolution of Self-Driving Cars]

"It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled," Tesla officials wrote.

The Model S is not a self-driving car, but Tesla's Autopilot feature is an assistive technology and a first step in bringing truly driverless cars to market. By means of computer software, sensors, cameras and radar, the car's Autopilot feature can complete tasks like merging onto a highway,the Atlantic reported. Drivers are instructed to keep their hands on the wheel while in Autopilot mode.

Tesla did not specify in their statement how engaged the driver was at the time of the crash, but did note that: "Neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied."

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