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Tesla escapes recall in probe of death linked to Autopilot

This file photo provided by the NTSB via the Florida Highway Patrol shows the Tesla Model S that was being driven by Joshua Brown, who was killed when the Tesla sedan crashed while in self-driving mode on May 7, 2016. (NTSB via Florida Highway Patrol via AP, File)
This file photo provided by the NTSB via the Florida Highway Patrol shows the Tesla Model S that was being driven by Joshua Brown, who was killed when the Tesla sedan crashed while in self-driving mode on May 7, 2016. (NTSB via Florida Highway Patrol via AP, File)

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. auto safety regulators on Thursday closed an investigation into a fatal accident involving Tesla Motors Inc.’s Autopilot driver-assist system, and said they didn’t find a defect warranting a recall.

Joshua Brown, a former Navy SEAL and Tesla enthusiast, was killed in May when his all-electric Tesla Model S sedan crashed into the side of a semi trailer that was crossing a Florida highway.

There’s no evidence that either Brown or the Autopilot system noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a bright sky and the brakes were never applied.

Related: Florida driver in fatal Tesla crash using Autopilot was speeding

No safety defect identified


"A safety-related defect trend has not been identified at this time and further examination of this issue does not appear to be warranted," the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a release. "Accordingly, this investigation is closed."

Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk called the NHTSA report “very positive” in a Twitter message, and highlighted data showing the company’s vehicle crash rate dropped by nearly 40 percent after the company installed an auto-steer system.

“We appreciate the thoroughness of NHTSA’s report and its conclusion,” Tesla said in an emailed statement.

Parallel investigation


The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency that has no regulatory power, is conducting a parallel investigation of the accident. The safety board is planning to issue its conclusions by early summer, spokesman Christopher O’Neil said.

The company has added protections to its software that will prevent the use of Autopilot if drivers fail to pay attention, NHTSA said. The driver in the accident made no attempt to brake, steer or take any other action to prevent the collision, NHTSA found.

The Tesla system required “the continual and full attention of the driver to monitor the traffic environment and be prepared to take action to avoid crashes,” NHTSA said.

New version of Autopilot software


Tesla unveiled a new version of its Autopilot software in November. In addition to preventing use if drivers don’t maintain control, the updated software emphasizes radar over cameras in the semi-autonomous guidance system. Musk said the change would have made it easier for the car in the crash to detect the truck and might have saved Brown’s life.

Palo Alto, California-based Tesla upgrades vehicle software automatically to customers over the airwaves.

“Tesla is not under any active investigation after today,” NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas told reporters on a phone briefing.

Related: Our autonomous future: Lessons from the Hoboken and Tesla crashes

Copyright 2017 Bloomberg. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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