PhotoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched an investigation of a fatal crash of a Tesla Model S that occurred in Florida while the car was in auto pilot mode. It is the first known fatality connected with a vehicle with auto pilot engaged.

Tesla announced the accident and said the federal investigation is to determine whether the auto pilot system worked properly.

Tesla's auto pilot system does not function as an autonomous, self-driving vehicle, such as those being developed by Google and other manufacturers. Every time the auto pilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to keep his or her hands on the wheel.

Tesla says the accident occurred on a divided highway. The company says a tractor trailer drove across the highway, in the path of the oncoming Tesla.

Conditions were a factor

“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 company wrote on its blog. “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 says if the car had hit the front or rear of the trailer its crash safety likely would have prevented serious injury.

In its blog, Tesla also points out that the autopilot feature is disabled by default. A driver mush explicitly acknowledge that the system is being engaged.

Tesla stock plunged due to the news, though many market analysts called it an over-reaction, noting the car's autopilot function was not designed to be a self-driving feature. Analysts giving opinions said the accident should not affect development of true autonomous vehicles.

“Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” the company said. “Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.”

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