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May 16, 2019

Fatal Tesla crash in March is latest to involve car's autopilot

Rain drops surround a Tesla Inc. logo on a Model 3 vehicle ahead of an event at the site of the company's manufacturing facility in Shanghai, China, on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. After four years of planning, Tesla finally broke ground on its planned $5 billion factory in the world's biggest auto market.

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A Tesla Inc. (TSLA.O) Model 3 involved in a March 1 fatal crash in Florida was being driven by the vehicle’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system and the driver’s hands weren’t on the steering wheel, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The driver was killed when the car slammed into the side of a semi-truck that was crossing a highway in Delray Beach, the NTSB said in a preliminary report released Thursday. The driver apparently wasn’t steering in the eight seconds before the collision, according to NTSB.

“Preliminary vehicle data show that the Tesla was traveling about 68 mph when it struck the semitrailer,” the report said. “Neither the preliminary data nor the videos indicate that the driver or the ADAS executed evasive maneuvers.”

ADAS refers to Tesla’s advanced driver-assistance system. The NTSB used video from a nearby surveillance camera showing the collision and the video devices that Teslas use to help them steer and perform other functions.

“We are deeply saddened by this accident and our thoughts are with everyone affected by this tragedy,” Tesla said in an emailed statement. The company said it informed NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the Autopilot activation after reviewing the car’s computerized data log.

The crash is the latest Tesla accident under investigation by the NTSB and is strikingly similar to a 2016 case in which a Model S hit the side of a truck without braking.

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Tesla said it’s looking into a fire in Shanghai after a video showing one of its vehicles bursting into flames went viral on Chinese social media. Bloomberg News’ David Welch explains what this could mean for one of Tesla’s most important markets.

In that fatal collision, the NTSB found that the design of Tesla Autopilot system was partially responsible for the crash and issued two recommendations to the company and other manufacturers to improve the safety of partially autonomous driving tools.

Among the NTSB’s findings was that the car’s sensors weren’t designed to identify the side of the truck and, therefore, didn’t slow the car.

Four months after the May 2016 crash, which killed former Navy SEAL Joshua Brown, Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk held a call with reporters to discuss a new version of the Autopilot software. Enhancements to the radar used as part of the company’s driver-assistance system likely would have detected the semi trailer, he said at the time.

The NTSB preliminary report on the March 1 collision doesn’t spell out what the car’s sensors detected as the vehicle approached the truck.

The safety board is also looking at another fatal crash involving Autopilot in 2018 in California. In that case, a Model X struck a concrete highway barrier, killing the driver.

NTSB investigators are also probing how the electric Tesla’s batteries behave after accidents following several fires.