Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its report into the fatal 2016 collision between a Tesla Model S and a semi-truck. In its report, the NHTSA shares blame between the Tesla’s driver and the driver of the tractor-trailer, who failed to yield the right of way to oncoming traffic. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also investigated the crash and released all of its investigations and findings in September 2017.
The accident was the first known fatality involving the Model S while the Autopilot feature was activated, making it a heavily covered news story around the world. The vehicle was in Autopilot mode even though it was in use on a highway where drivers are warned against using Autopilot.
Accident Involved Tesla Autopilot Car and Tractor Trailer
The May 7, 2016, crash involved a Tesla Model S Autopilot car and a tractor-trailer in Williston, Florida, at an uncontrolled intersection on US Highway 27A. The accident occurred when the semi-truck made a left turn at an intersection on the divided highway. As the truck made the left turn onto a side street, it drove in the path of the Model S, which was traveling in the opposite direction.
The Model S wound up driving beneath the truck, shearing off the roof of the Tesla and killing Joshua Brown, the car’s driver. After the car passed underneath the tractor-trailer, it traveled approximately 910 feet, including through a drainage culvert and two fences.
“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, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S,” Tesla wrote in a statement immediately following the crash.
The NTSB found that the 40-year-old Tesla driver died from extensive blunt force trauma to the head.
Tesla in Autopilot when Truck Accident Occurred
In its investigation of the accident, the NHTSA obtained data from the Tesla that indicated:
- The Tesla was in Autopilot mode when the collision occurred;
- The Automatic Emergency Braking System did not warn of or respond to the crash;
- The driver did not take any actions to prevent the crash;
- The last recorded driver action was less than two minutes before the collision when the driver set the cruise control speed to 74 miles per hour.
The report also noted that based on a crash reconstruction, the driver should have seen the tractor-trailer at least seven seconds before the collision.
“The Florida fatal crash appears to have involved a period of extended distraction (at least 7 seconds),” the report notes. “Most of the incidents reviewed by ODI involved events with much shorter time available for the system and driver to detect/observe and react to the pending collision (less than 3 seconds).”
Although the Tesla was equipped with Automatic Emergency Braking, that system is not designed to avoid situations where another vehicle turns left across the path of the car.
Marijuana Found in Truck Driver’s Blood
The agency found that the truck driver’s failure to yield the right of way was a primary factor in the accident. In addition to possible driver distraction on the Tesla driver’s part as a cause of the accident, the NHTSA also found that the truck driver had marijuana in his blood.
Victim’s Family Releases Statement Following Report on Tesla and Truck Collision
Brown’s family released a statement after the report was released, noting that Brown served 11 years in the U.S. Navy, was a master Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician, and served in the Navy’s elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group. The statement cited facts from the investigations to point out that Brown had followed the Model S’ prompts to put his hands on the steering wheel, was not excessively speeding—though the cruise control was set to above the speed limit—and was not watching a movie at the time of the crash.
“There was a small window of time when neither Joshua nor the Tesla features noticed the truck making the left-hand turn in front of the car,” the statement reads. “People die every day in car accidents. Many of those are caused by lack of attention or inability to see the danger.”
The statement goes on to note that Brown’s accident has already encouraged improvements to the Tesla’s technology.
“Our family takes solace and pride in the fact that our son is making such a positive impact on future highway safety,” Brown’s family writes.
While critics argue about whether Tesla can or should do more to prevent accidents like Brown’s, another important factor in the crash is that the semi-truck failed to yield the right-of-way and made a left-hand turn in front of the oncoming Model S. The collision highlights again how deadly semi-truck accidents can be, even in cars designed for the highest level of safety.