Tesla driver killed in crash while using car's 'Autopilot'

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Tesla responded Thursday to a federal investigation into a fatal crash involving a Model S driver his vehicle on autopilot mode.

The Tesla statement came after the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration announced it is opening an investigation into the design and performance of the Tesla systems and whether they were operating as expected.

The crash happened May 7, 2016 in Williston, Florida near Gainesville. Preliminary reports indicate a tractor trailer turned left at an intersection in front of the oncoming Tesla and its driver, Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio.   By the time firefighters arrived, the Tesla wreckage -- with its roof sheared off -- had come to rest in a yard hundreds of feet from the crash site.

"Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer," the Tesla statement read.

Read Tesla's full statement: 'A Tragic Loss'

CNET Roadshow Executive Editor Wayne Cunningham says he's driven the Tesla Model S on autopilot.

"The Tesla is using radar to look ahead and it really shouldn't matter what color the truck was or the sky was, Certainly that might have fooled the cameras, but the radar should have seen the truck in the way," said Cunningham.

"This a situation where the car's autopilot feature can maybe lull you into a false sense of security because it really does a good job of taking over the driving but it may not handle every situation well," Cunningham added.

The Model S autopilot system uses cameras, sensors, and radar to monitor the road and take over the steering and driving controls. The system allows the Model S to steer itself within a lane, change lanes and speed up or slow down based on surrounding traffic or the driver's set speed. It can automatically apply brakes and slow the vehicle.

Tesla admits the autopilot feature is still in its beta test phase and says the computer displays a message telling the driver to keep both hands on the wheel, and activates warning messages and alarms it the driver removes hands from the steering wheel.

The Fremont-based company has sold more than 100,000 Model S sedans since the vehicle rolled onto roads in 2012. The company says this is the first fatal crash involving the autopilot feature, in just over 130 million miles logged by drivers.

Tesla claims the technology saves lives by eliminating human error.

Cunningham notes other companies have been more conservative about deploying the technology.

"Tesla hasn't done the research and maybe they're putting it out a little sooner than its ready," Cunningham said.

Ironically, the crash victim posted a video online in April of his 2015 Tesla moving through traffic, saying he had not been watching the road and the Tesla autopilot feature avoided a crash and saved his life.

Frank Baressi, 62, the driver of the tractor-trailer and owner of Okemah Express LLC, said the Tesla driver was "playing Harry Potter on the TV screen" and driving so quickly that "he went so fast through my trailer I didn't see him."

"It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road," Baressi said in an in an interview from his home in Palm Harbor, Florida. He acknowledged he couldn't see the movie, only heard it.

Tesla Motors Inc. said it is not possible to watch videos on the Model S touch screen.

Brown's published obituary described him as a member of the Navy SEALs for 11 years and founder of a wireless Internet network and camera system company. In Washington, the Pentagon confirmed Brown's work with the SEALs and said he left the service in 2008.

Tesla noted that drivers must manually enable the Autopilot system: "Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert."

As NHTSA opened an investigation, Tesla founder Elon Musk expressed condolences.

Brown's death comes as NHTSA is taking steps to ease self-driving cars onto the nation's roads, an anticipated sea-change in driving where Tesla has been a leader. Self-driving cars are expected to eliminate human errors that are responsible for 94 percent of crashes.

This is not the first time automatic braking systems have malfunctioned, and several have been recalled to fix problems. Last fall, Ford, for instance, recalled 37,000 F-150 pickups because they braked with nothing in the way. The company said the radar could become confused when passing a large, reflective truck.

The technology relies on multiple cameras, radar, laser and computers to sense objects and determine if they are in the car's way. Systems like Tesla's, which rely heavily on cameras, "aren't sophisticated enough to overcome blindness from bright or low contrast light," said Mike Harley, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

Harley said that more deaths can be expected as the autonomous technology is refined.

Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said the crash is a huge blow to Tesla's reputation.

"They have been touting their safety and they have been touting their advanced technology," he said. "This situation flies in the face of both."