Self-Driving Tesla Was Involved in Fatal Crash, U.S. Says


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A Tesla Model S, with its self-driving mode enabled. In a statement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had sent an investigative team to examine the vehicle and the crash site in Williston, Fla.

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Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

DETROIT — The race by automakers and technology firms to develop self-driving cars has been fueled by the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers.

But that view is now in question after the revelation on Thursday that the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan was killed in an accident when the car was in self-driving mode.

Federal regulators, who are in the early stages of setting guidelines for autonomous vehicles, have opened a formal investigation into the incident, which occurred on May 7 in Williston, Fla.

In a statement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said preliminary reports indicated that the crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla, and the car failed to apply the brakes.

It is the first known fatal accident involving a vehicle being driven by itself by means of sophisticated computer software, sensors, cameras and radar.

The safety agency did not identify the Tesla driver who was killed. But the Florida Highway Patrol identified him as Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio.

He was a Navy veteran who owned a technology consulting firm. In a news release, Tesla on Thursday described him as a man “who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission.”

Mr. Brown posted videos of himself riding in autopilot mode. “The car’s doing it all itself,’’ he said in one, smiling as he took his hands from the steering wheel.