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Washington – Tesla officials have told U.S. Senate committee staff members that they suspect the deadly crash of a Tesla Model S was caused by a failure of the camera or radar for the car’s automatic braking system, according to a person familiar with a Thursday briefing by the company.

Joshua Brown, 40, of Ohio, was killed in a crash in Florida in a 2015 Model S that was operating with its Autopilot driver-assist system engaged. The car failed to recognize a semi-trailer that turned left in front of it at a highway intersection on May 7. Police said the roof of the car struck the underside of the trailer and the car passed beneath. Brown was declared dead at the scene.

Brown’s death is believed to be the first fatality in a car that had a semi-autonomous driving feature turned on.

According to a Senate Commerce Committee source who is familiar with the briefing, Tesla told staffers it believes the camera and radar either failed to detect the truck or tuned it out as part of a system that is designed to discount overhead objections such as bridges and highway signs to prevent unnecessary braking. The source asked not to be identified because the meeting was private.

The automaker reportedly told Senate staffers it views the failure of the Model S automatic braking system as separate from the Autopilot function. Tesla’s Autopilot has emerged as a lightning rod for consumer groups who argued the system is promoted as a self-driving feature.

A Tesla spokesperson said Friday that company officials told Senate staffers that neither cameras nor radar caused the accident. Rather, the spokesperson said, the scenario “happened to fall within a unique set of circumstances for which the camera and radar were not able to provide the appropriate warning or braking support.”

In a blog posting on June 30, the company said, “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 fatal crash has roiled the debate over self-driving cars, with consumer groups calling for federal regulators to slow a push from automakers and tech companies like Google to win wide latitude for autonomous vehicle testing.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., had required Tesla to provide details to committee staffers about the Model S crash by Friday. “While investigations are still ongoing, questions remain as to whether the technology performed as intended and whether this tragic accident could have been avoided,” he wrote in a July 14 letter to the company.

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

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