What Does the Tesla Autopilot Fatality Mean for Self-Driving Vehicles?
Kagan Pittman posted on July 05, 2016 |


The self-driving car is a technology still in its infancy, and on May 7th a collision between a Tesla Model S and a tractor trailer left us all with a grim reminder of this fact.

40-year-old Joshua Brown, a Navy veteran, entrepreneur and technology lover, was behind the wheel of his Model S when a white tractor trailer passed through Brown’s lane.

Neither Brown, nor the Autopilot feature of the Model S, recognized the trailer as an obstacle before the windshield of the Model S impacted with the trailer.


A diagram from the police report about the Tesla crash shows how the vehicle in self-driving mode (V02) struck a tractor-trailer (V01) as it was turning left. (Image courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol.)
A diagram from the police report about the Tesla crash shows how the vehicle in self-driving mode (V02) struck a tractor-trailer (V01) as it was turning left. (Image courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol.)


“This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated,” Tesla stated in a press release on their blog.

Tesla’s Autopilot feature is still in public beta phase, and so the company disables Autopilot in its vehicles by default. It is important to note that drivers can take control of the vehicle back from the Autopilot feature simply by turning the steering wheel or tapping the brakes.

Drivers are required to go through a number of prompts when activating the feature, acknowledging that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times… Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.”


Tesla Autopilot Fatality Sparks Media Backlash Amid Investigation

Brooke Crothers, a contributor to Forbes, points out how quickly media headlines were to stoke the fire against Tesla for potential oversights in the technology behind the Autopilot feature – “Fatal Tesla Crash Spurs Criticism of On-The-Road Beta Testing.”

However, not all of the public seem to buy into the anti-Tesla rhetoric.

Crothers quotes commenters on stories similar to the one above, reminding us to consider common-sense: “Not clear if the accident was avoidable by human or machine. But whatever the case, no machine will ever be perfect. And wait for more data to come out about the accident.”

The NHTSA has begun a preliminary investigation into the accident, “to determine whether the system worked according to expectations,” according to the Tesla press release.

For Tesla and other companies such as Google which are pursuing autonomous vehicles, this fatality is the first major bump in the road to a future of self-driving vehicles. Public beta testing may fall out of favor if the right leading figures decide to prevent accidents like this from happening again.

Leave us your thoughts on what the future of self-driving cars may look like in the comments below.

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