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NHTSA investigates Tesla after fatal crash while vehicle was in autonomous mode

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating Tesla’s Autopilot autonomous-driving system in the wake of a fatal crash. The agency said the May crash involved a 2015 Tesla Model S driving with the system engaged.

Updated on 7-2-2016 By Alex Kalogiannis: Added quotes from a liability expert, past statements made by Elon Musk, and info on the DVD player discovered at the scene. 

The incident “calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash,” the NHTSA told CNBC. Depending on what it finds, the agency could order a recall of the roughly 25,000 Tesla Model S and Model X electric cars equipped with Autopilot. The system, which allows cars to autonomously follow traffic, brake, and make lane changes, was launched as a public beta in August.

Related: Tesla Model X crashes, but logs show vehicle not at fault

In a blog post published Thursday, Tesla said this was the “first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated.” The company noted that among all vehicles in the U.S., there is fatality every 94 million miles. The worldwide figure is 60 million miles, Tesla said. CEO Elon Musk called the crash a “tragic loss” on Twitter.

“It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations,” the Tesla blog post said.

Tesla said it informed the NHTSA of the crash “immediately after it occurred.” The Model S collided with a tractor-trailer that had crossed a divided highway. The car passed underneath the trailer, and the bottom of the trailer hit its windshield. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer directly, Tesla claims its safety systems could have prevented the fatality.

Related: Everything you need to know about the Tesla Model 3

“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. It added that Autopilot is still in the public beta phase, and that drivers must remain alert. Turning on the system requires drivers to acknowledge a message reminding them to “maintain control and responsibility” for the vehicle, and to “be prepared to take over at any time,” the company noted.

The issue of liability will be one that will be debated for some time. Sandee Perfetto, Director of Personal Auto Product Development at Verisk Insurance Solutions spoke to Digital Trends and reminded us that these questions were being asked even before autonomous driving was on the table. “Even now, when we have so many advanced crash avoidance technologies… you get the questions of ‘where is the line?’ Who is responsible?”

In in interview with Bloomberg in 2014, Musk stressed how much the driver is very much still a part of the system, even with autopilot engaged. “We’re going to be quite clear with customers that the responsibility remains with the driver. We’re not asserting that the car is capable of driving in the absence of driver oversight.”

Further evidence of the driver’s lack of oversight was confirmed by local authorities. Reuters reports a portable DVD player with a film from the Harry Potter film series showing on the screen was found at the scene of the incident.

Digital Trends reached out to Tesla for its perspective, but the automaker redirected us back to the “tragic loss” post on its blog, as this is its only statement on the matter.

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