Safety agency investigating first-ever driverless car death

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A federal safety agency is investigating a deadly accident involving a Tesla Motors vehicle while it was in self-driving mode — the first-ever fatality linked to a semi-autonomous car feature.

Tesla said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) informed the company Wednesday evening that the agency was opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of autopilot after a recent fatal crash involving a Model S vehicle.

{mosads}The model has software that is considered “semi-autonomous,” because a driver is still required to be behind the wheel, but the car can change lanes, brake, steer, accelerate, decelerate and avoid obstacles on its own when on autopilot. It is made clear to drivers that the new technology is still in a public beta phase.

“What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S,” Tesla said in a blog post Thursday.

“Neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

This is the first fatal crash that has been linked to a car in self-driving mode. About 32,000 traffic deaths occur every year, mostly caused by human error.

Tesla emphasized that the NHTSA probe is a “preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.”

But the investigation is sure to raise questions and stoke fears surrounding the emergence of self-driving vehicles on the roads, at a time when federal regulators and states are beginning to craft policies on autonomous vehicles.

Earlier on Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Christopher Hart cautioned that there will be deaths from autonomous vehicles, but stressed that human error will still far outpace the number of deaths from self-driving vehicles.

Hart said that he didn’t expect the first driverless car fatality to derail efforts to bring autonomous vehicles to market.

“The first fatal crash will certainly get a lot of attention,” he said. “But this train has left the station.”

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