The Tesla (TSLA) - Get Report Model S involved in a fatal crash in Florida was traveling at 74 mph in a 65-mph zone just prior to impact, according to a report published Tuesday by the National Traffic Safety Board.
The report, which was preliminary, provided few further details about the May 7 crash that sparked a wave of attention on Tesla's Autopilot drive-assist technology. The government offered no probable cause for the crash, but did confirm previous reports that the technology was activated at the time of the collision with a truck crossing U.S. Highway 27A near Williston, Fla.
Tesla has previously said that the truck's white color, against a bright background, led neither the Model S's onboard cameras nor the operator to see the hazard and adjust prior to the incident. The driver of the truck also initially claimed that the driver of the vehicle was watching a movie at the time of the incident, though that claim has been disputed.
The report leaves most questions unanswered, but would seemingly add credence to claims by both bulls that there was operator error involved, speeding, and claims by bears that the system had failed to perform as designed. The bigger questions of whether the technology is ready to be on the streets, and whether drivers are ready for the responsibilities that come with it, seem unlikely to be settled even if the government updates its findings.
Tesla has argued in the weeks since the crash that Autopilot, when used correctly, is safer than a vehicle operated without any assistance, and stresses that the system's manual requires an Autopilot user to keep their hands on the wheel at all time. But critics say such advice is belied by human nature, and perhaps the suggestive nature of the name "autopilot," arguing that users will inevitably be tempted to check email or be otherwise distracted behind the wheel.
The Florida crash has led to calls from a number of consumer groups, including Consumer Reports, for Tesla to disable and rebrand the Autopilot system, but Tesla to date has said it has no plans to shut down the system. Autopilot -- in addition to being part of Tesla's marketing campaign -- also provides extra revenue to the still money-losing company as it is sold as an add-on feature.
Regulators could mandate Tesla disable Autopilot or slow its deployment based on investigations into the Williston crash and other recent nonfatal incidents in which the drivers claim Autopilot was in use.
The fear for Tesla is that regardless of what investigators conclude about Autopilot, the high-profile statements from Consumer Reports and others will eat into public perception of the brand and its technology and do long-term damage to sales. Consumer Reports, in its critique of Tesla, said the company is using its customers as "guinea pigs" to test "vehicle safety 'beta' programs."
Reputation risk is already on the minds of others with ties to Tesla's Autopilot feature. Mobileye (MBLY) , maker of hardware and software that goes into automated driving systems, announced during its second-quarter earnings call Tuesday that its long-running relationship with Tesla was ending.
It's unclear who is firing who, but Mobileye co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Amnon Shashua seemingly made reference to Tesla's recent issues when saying "there is much at stake to Mobileye's reputation and the industry at large" as automakers roll out futuristic systems.
It is far too soon to say whether what happened in Williston will become an albatross around Tesla or simply a tragic speed bump on the company's road to fully autonomous vehicles. It is also unlikely the full impact will be known no matter what the NTSB eventually concludes.