The first reported fatality in a car crash where Autopilot was activated has been reported (Thursday 30th June), with Tesla Model S owner Joshua Brown, 40, from Ohio the casualty. The incident occurred in May earlier this year and is being investigated by the United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
According to initial reports, the car’s sensors could not differentiate between the side of a large white lorry with a trailer crossing the road, and a bright and clear sky. Tesla states that the brake was not applied as neither driver nor car noticed the obstacle, and as such the vehicle tried to drive under the trailer.
This in itself was the worst possible outcome as if the Tesla Model S had driven into the side of the trailer or lorry, instead of the windscreen being the first part of the car to be involved in the collision, the vehicle’s safety systems, body work and crumple zones would have dramatically reduced the chance of a fatality.
The driver of the truck, Frank Baressi, 62, told the Associated Press that the Tesla driver was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” during the collision and was driving so fast that “he went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him”.
The Associated Press has also reported that records show Johsua Brown received eight speeding tickets in six years.
In its statement on the issue, titled ‘A Tragic Loss‘, Tesla Motors reveals that the crash is being investigated which is carrying out preliminary evaluations. It is stressed that this is just the first stage of a process to determine whether the system worked according to expectations and whether the driver or car was at at fault.
The announcement also goes on to say that it is the first fatality reported in more than 130 million combined miles of Autopilot being activated. The US vehicle average is one death every 94 million miles.
Tesla states that Autopilot is currently only a driver aid, rather than a fully autonomous system, primarily because legislation doesn’t allow for fully autonomous cars in public hands at the moment. The laws in the US can be different to those in Europe, where a hand must be on the wheel at all times to represent the driver being in control of the car.
However, the Autopilot system is advertised as “an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it.” Reminders are given when activating the system and at frequent stages when the car considers the driver to not be fully in control.
Regular reports come in from Tesla drivers who say that the Autopilot system is excellent, fully autonomous, and capable of being used to cross the continent with no input from the driver. There are also reports of ‘certain crashes’ being avoided by the car’s systems, preventing accidents rather than causing them. However, there are clearly situations where a fully alert driver in complete control of their vehicle will prove safer. Particularly as autonomous systems currently need to navigate around those most random of situations – other human drivers.
Tesla finished its press release by saying: “The customer who died in this crash had a loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss. He was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community, a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission. We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.”