The US highway safety authority has launched a "preliminary evaluation" of Tesla's self-driving technology in the wake of a fatal crash, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) said Friday.

The crash May 7 in the south-eastern US state of Florida killed a man who was traveling in his 2015 Tesla Model S sedan with the car's self-driving Autopilot system engaged, Tesla said.

In a statement, NHTSA said it had opened a preliminary investigation into the design and performance of the electric car maker's Autopilot system, but cautioned that the opening of the investigation did not mean the authority believed the system was defective.

A Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) crash report provided to dpa identified the victim as Joshua Brown, 40.

Brown was a former Navy SEAL, tech entrepreneur and electric car enthusiast who posted on social media videos of himself inside the Tesla as it drove itself, according to the New York Times.

Tesla described him as a "friend" to Tesla and to the electric car community, "a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology."

A diagram of the crash provided to the New York Times by the Florida Highway Patrol showed Brown was traveling straight on a highway when a tractor trailer truck turned left in front of him.

Tesla said neither Brown nor the car's sensors noticed "the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky" and both failed to brake.

Brown was wearing a seatbelt, according to the FHP report. Tesla said the combination of the low-slung sedan and the high-set truck meant while the car's windshield collided with the trailer, the car's body passed under it without setting off its crash safety system.

The investigation comes at a critical time for the electric auto maker as it courts profitability and a larger customer base with the introduction of its mass-market Model 3. Tesla shares dipped Friday.

The fatal crash, believed to be the first ever involving a self-driving car, could have also have implications for an industry promoting the technology as safer than human driving.

Self-driving technology is seen as the auto indutry's next frontier, and tech and car firms are rushing to conquer it. Google, Ford, General Motors and Audi are among those already testing cars that drive themselves. BMW, Intel and Mobileye Friday announced plans to build self-driving cars by 2021.

Carmakers promise that self-driving vehicles will make transport much safer and reduce the number of highways deaths drastically. Before the Tesla crash, only one other accident involving a self-driving car had been reported, when a Google-developed test car clipped a public bus near the company's Silicon Valley headquarters.

Tesla's Autopilot system is designed to maintain speed and distance at speeds above 29 kmh, avoid or brake ahead of obstacles and parallel park.

The company cautions that the system is in beta testing mode and drivers must keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to take over at any time.

But for many, the temptation to rely on technology appears irresistible. Videos by Tesla owners posted on the internet show that many do not heed the warnings. Brown himself posted a video showing him with his hands off the wheel as the car drove itself in traffic.

In October, a Tesla Model S drove three passengers more than 5,000 kilometres from Los Angeles to New York in a record two and a half days, often at speeds over 140 kmh.

One of the passengers, racing driver Alex Roy, told Wired magazine the technology was imperfect.

At high speeds around highway curves, Roy said, "if I hadn't had my hands there, ready to take over, the car would have gone off the road and killed us."

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