Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said it was investigating the fatality to see if the autopilot system was to blame. But Tesla acknowledged that the accident might have been the fault of the computer.
The crash occurred May 7 when Joshua David Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, was behind the wheel of his black 2015 Model S Tesla, while in Autopilot mode on U.S. Route-27 in Williston, Fla., and hit the side of a tractor trailer that was crossing the road to make a turn.
"Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied," Tesla said in a blog post entitled "A Tragic Loss."
The Model S passed under the trailer, crushing the top of the car and the windshield. "Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents," Tesla said.
The company stressed the rare nature of the crash.
"This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated," Tesla said. "Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles."
But Michelle Krebbs, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, called for a recall of cars with Autopilot. And Karl Brauer, another senior analyst at KBB, added: “I’d like to say I didn’t see this coming, but it was inevitable based on the documented abuses of driver-assist technology we’ve been seeing on sites like YouTube.”
“This will be a big hit to Tesla’s reputation because the automaker has been seen as a leader in both passenger safety and advanced technology,” Brauer added.
Tesla said Brown had a “loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss. He was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community.”
Brown had a YouTube channel where he posted videos of himself driving his Model S, nicknamed "Tessy," in different road conditions. In April, posted a video of the car in Autopilot mode that successfully swerved to avoid an incoming boom lift truck that moved into his lane.
Brown tweeted the video and elicited a response from Tesla founder Elon Musk, who tweeted the video himself.
Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, said that the incident shows no "single technology on the market today can make a vehicle 100 percent safe" -- and that "there is not a true 'Autopilot.'"
"This tragic accident is a sobering reminder that while automated vehicle technology has come a long way, it still has a long way to go," Montoya said. "You will never be able to predict all the risks out there."