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1 July 2016

Autopilot crash death looms over Tesla and self-driving car industry

A man has died this week after his Tesla Model S crashed into an 18-wheel tractor trailer in Florida – in a tragic incident which seemingly points to a failure of Tesla’s autopilot technology.

While our sympathies are with the family of the victim, 40-year old Joshua Brown, at this difficult time, as a technology publication we want to point out that if the tabloid press can whip this into enough of a frenzy then there’s no doubt that this incident will be a significant setback for the progression of semi-autonomous cars – regardless of whether it was the vehicle, the driver, or both that was at fault.

An investigation is currently underway to uncover if there was an issue with the car’s software or not, but so far Tesla has admitted that neither the autopilot technology nor the driver noticed the white side of the trailer against a bright sky. Tesla is notoriously tight-lipped about its autonomous technology, so it remains under wraps about why something that sounds so simple as detecting a huge trailer and activating the brakes didn’t happen. It also has serious ramifications if the same (or similar) technology is being used in other semi-autonomous vehicles.

The autopilot technology uses sensors to allow the vehicle to automatically steer within a lane, change lanes by using the indicator, and it also adjusts speed by using “traffic-aware” technology which controls the motor and brakes. Tesla notes that its autopilot features are progressively enabled over time with software updates.

The ultimate consumer dream for autonomous cars is to be able to watch TV on the go, or take a nap on the way to work – but even before the legal barriers have arisen, if it comes to light that a fault in Tesla’s technology has caused a vehicle to fail at its primary function (safety) and has resulted in the death of a driver, then this utopian vision remains a very long way from coming to fruition.

It is still unclear what distracted Mr. Brown, but Tesla has never suggested that drivers should watch TV or fall asleep when the autopilot function is enabled – and while its technology is essentially an evolution of advanced cruise control, it doesn’t really market it in this way. Tesla is also quite bullish and blatant with its warnings and guidelines – having used this in its defense in previous cases involving minor crashes at slow speeds.

The underlying problem here is that drivers are putting far too much trust in autopilot technology – under the illusion that these are fully fledged autonomous cars, while in reality it still requires the driver’s full attention to take control when a dangerous situation arises.

Critics point out that if drivers still have to remain vigilant, then what’s the point of this function in the first place – the fundamental point is to enhance safety, not to create a luxurious and relaxing environment for the journey, that’s what chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces are for. One can argue that technology like this creates more dangerous environments – where drivers are lulled into a false sense of security.

In a statement, Tesla said that this is the first known fatality in 130 million miles of autopilot-activated driving, which compares to a fatality every 94 million miles in the US in standard cars, and 60 million worldwide. That’s a staggeringly good record in terms of miles-driven, and one that’s very hard to critique.

“The vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield,” Tesla said in a statement.

It’s worth noting that while this is certainly the first autopilot fatality, this is not Tesla’s first crash incident – there have been previous occurrences of Tesla cars failing to avoid stationary vehicles, and also crashing while in the auto-park mode. Just a few weeks prior to Mr. Brown’s accident, he uploaded a video in which the car’s autopilot system swerved to avoid a truck which was veering into his lane. Mr. Brown openly said at the time that he was not concentrating on driving as his car “was on duty” – and he praised Tesla for saving his life.

The Tesla Model S manual points out to drivers that stationary vehicles are a potential stumbling block for its sensors: “Warning: Traffic-aware cruise control may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h) and a vehicle you are following moves out of your driving path and a stationary vehicle or object is in front of you instead. Always pay attention to the road ahead and stay prepared to take immediate corrective action. Depending on TrafficAware Cruise Control to avoid a collision can result in serious injury or death.”