Tesla Driver Killed While Driving On Autopilot

Tesla has a feature called Autopilot which will all the car to drive itself in certain situations. However, the driver must keep their hands on the wheel so the they can take control if needed. Thus this is a semi-autonomous system. People, yours truly included, have always wondered what would happen if a car with a system like this got into an accident and someone died. Well, that’s now happened:

The 7 May accident occurred in Williston, Florida, after the driver, Joshua Brown, 40, of Ohio put his Model S into Tesla’s autopilot mode, which is able to control the car during highway driving.

Against a bright spring sky, the car’s sensors system failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway, Tesla said. The car attempted to drive full speed under the trailer, “with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S”, Tesla said in a blogpost.

police report in the Levy County Journal said the top of the vehicle “was torn off by the force of the collision”. The truck driver, Frank Baressi, 62, of Tampa, Florida, was uninjured, the Journal reported. 

America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an inquiry into the accident.

Tesla, the maker of the Model S has posted a blog post that says among other things, this:

Following our standard practice, Tesla informed NHTSA about the incident immediately after it occurred. What we know is that 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 of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.

This isn’t good news for Tesla. As of late, Tesla has quietly settled a lawsuit with a Model X owner who claims his car’s doors would open and close unpredictably, smashing into his wife and other cars, and that the Model X’s Auto-Pilot feature poses a danger in the rain. And the caught the attention of federal regulators when it appeared that Tesla might have been trying to cover up suspension issues. No owner Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been sleeping in the factory as of late. Now, Tesla does point out this in their blog post:

This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles.

From a math perspective, you could say that Autopilot does a better job than humans. But that is cold comfort to family of the person who died in this accident. Because any death while driving is one too many. Thus I think it would be wise for Tesla to really show how they can improve Autopilot so that we don’t have to have this conversation again.


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