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Tesla driver allegedly watching movie before fatal Autopilot crash

The Tesla Autopilot system failed to detect a turning semi-trailer.

A US man who died in Florida in May after his Tesla Model S went underneath the trailer of a truck in the US was allegedly watching a movie at the time, according to witnesses.

The Tesla driver, Joshua Brown, 40, failed to note the semi-trailer turning across his path on a Florida freeway, while the Tesla’s Autopilot system also failed to stop or slow the car.

The car struck the truck’s trailer broadside at windscreen height at unabated speed, before coming to rest almost 300 metres away from the crash site, guiding itself between two trees before crashing into a pole.

An investigator told witnesses that there was a movie still playing in the car after it had come to rest. Video footage from the scene shows the Model S’s hazard lights still working, despite the car being extensively damaged from bonnet to boot.

Other witness reports suggest the Tesla was travelling in excess of 130km/h prior to the crash.

Tesla explains that the Autopilot system is still in a “public beta phase”, and that the driver acknowledges this via a check box on the car’s screen.

A sergeant with the Florida Highway Patrol has also confirmed the discovery of a portable DVD player in the wreckage.

America’s leading safety body, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is investigating the incident, while Tesla chief Elon Musk has tweeted his condolences.

Tesla claims that Mr Brown’s death is the first in 130 million miles (209 million km) travelled by the Autopilot system, which uses a combination of ultrasonic sensors, cameras and radars to guide the Tesla with no driver intervention.

Numerous videos have been posted online of Tesla drivers reading, playing solitaire and even sleeping while driving a Model S, while other videos show instances of the system allegedly failing to activate in dangerous situations, with the driver needing to intervene.

In a blog post Tesla explains that the Autopilot system – which was made available for Australian-delivered cars via the company’s Version 7.0 software release in October 2015 – is still in a “public beta phase”, and that the driver acknowledges this via a check box on the car’s screen.

It also says that the car can detect whether the driver’s hands are on the steering wheel, and will gradually slow the vehicle down if no steering wheel inputs are detected after a period.

“Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” said the statement.

“Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.”

The Autopilot-equipped Model S is considered a Level Two autonomous vehicle for regulatory purposes in Australia, which essentially means that a driver’s hands need to remain on the wheel at all times.

Even though the Model S is capable of a much higher level of autonomy than other Level Two cars like Mercedes-Benz’s C Class, Honda’s Accord and even Skoda’s Octavia, there is no state or territory in Australia that currently allows the use of a fully autonomous vehicle.

Does this Tesla crash change your mind about the future of autonomous driving? Tell us what you think in the comments below.