Tesla Said to Offer Theories on Systems Failure in Fatal Crash

  • Company briefed congressional staff on May 7 crash in Florida
  • Model S may have detected and disregarded crossing truck

Tesla Motors Inc. suspects the automatic braking system on a Model S car involved in a fatal crash either didn’t detect the truck it struck, or saw the vehicle and failed to act, company representatives are said to have told congressional aides probing the accident.

The braking system’s radar and camera may have failed to detect the tractor-trailer, Tesla representatives said during a July 28 briefing to Senate Commerce Committee staff members looking into the crash, said a committee official familiar with the discussion.

Alternatively, the braking system’s radar may have detected the trailer but discounted it as part of a design to disregard overhead structures such as bridges and highway signs to avoid improperly applying the brakes, Tesla representatives said, according to the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the briefing wasn’t public.

The white tractor-trailer turned in front of the car against a brightly lit sky on May 7 near Williston, Florida, according to the carmaker.

Members of Congress including Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, and U.S. safety officials have heightened scrutiny of Tesla’s automated driving systems since the crash, which killed an Ohio man. The driver was using automated driving technology and was speeding when his 2015 Tesla failed to react to an 18-wheeler crossing the road, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

Tesla has said the crash was the first known fatality in more than 130 million miles of so-called Autopilot features, which are available on more than 70,000 vehicles worldwide.

Company representatives view the braking failure as separate from the Autopilot function that manages steering, changing lanes and adjusting travel speed, the committee official said.

Khobi Brooklyn, a Tesla spokeswoman, confirmed that the Senate briefing occurred but didn’t provide further comment.

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