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Washington — The National Transportation Safety Board is launching an investigation of a fatal crash on May 7 involving a 2015 Tesla Model S that was operating with its automated driving system activated.

The NTSB said it “is sending five people to investigate the crash” in Williston, Florida, near Gainesville, that resulted in what is believed to be the first U.S. death in a vehicle engaged in a semi-autonomous driving feature.

In doing so, the safety board is becoming the second federal agency to probe the deadly accident that has sparked debate about the future of self-driving cars, joining the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which launched a probe of its own last week.

The NTSB said NHTSA’s investigation “will focus on the crucial purpose of determining whether there are defects that need to be addressed,” while its probe “will be looking more comprehensively at whether the crash reveals systemic issues that might inform the future development of driverless cars and the investigation of crashes involving autonomous vehicles.”

NHTSA has said preliminary reports say the crash happened when a semi-trailer rig turned left in front of the Tesla at a highway intersection. Florida police said the roof of the car struck the underside of the trailer and the car passed beneath. The car went off the road, striking two wire fences and a power pole before coming to a rest about 100 feet away. The driver was dead at the scene.

“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 posting June 30.

As the result of the crash, NHTSA is now investigating about 25,000 Tesla cars.

The crash of the vehicle using Tesla’s Autopilot feature has sparked debate about the viability of self-driving cars as automakers and technology companies are rushing regulators to allow testing of fully autonomous vehicles.

“An autopilot whose sensors cannot distinguish between the side of a white truck and a bright sky simply is not ready to be deployed on public roads,” the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group wrote in a letter to Tesla CEO Elon Musk this week.

“Tesla should immediately disable the autopilot feature on all your vehicles until it can be proven to be safe,” the letter continued. “At a minimum, autopilot must be disabled until the complete results of NHTSA’s investigation are released.”

Tesla has said it “disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgment that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.

“When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot ‘is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,’ and that ‘you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle’ while using it,” the company wrote in a blog post when news of the fatal accident was released on June 30.

“As more real-world miles accumulate and the software logic accounts for increasingly rare events, the probability of injury will keep decreasing,” the company continued. “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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