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Tesla under investigation after first Autopilot-related death

Written by Roberto Baldwin

The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) is investigating a collision that occurred when a Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode crashed into a tractor trailer resulting in the death of the driver. This is the first fatality linked to the automaker’s vehicles while in the semi-autonomous driving mode.

According to Tesla, the Model S was traveling down a divided highway when a tractor trailer crossed perpendicular to the path of the car. Neither the driver nor Autopilot applied the brakes. The automaker believes that the combination of a white trailer and brightly lit sky may have made the trailer difficult to see.

Because of the height of the trailer, the windshield of the car struck the truck’s container as the vehicle passed under it. Tesla believes that its “advanced crash safety system” would have prevented any serious injury if the front of the Model S had the hit truck itself.

Tesla’s Autopilot mode is still in beta and the automaker reminds drivers that they need to keep their hands on the wheel and continue to pay attention to the road and be prepared to take control of the vehicle.

The collision occurred on May 7 in Williston, Florida. Tesla informed the NHTSA about the incident which has in turn opened a preliminary investigation. According to the Levy Journal, the name of the driver was Joshua Brown. Brown was an active member of the Tesla Reddit forum and as The Verge reports had previously posted a video that was tweeted by Elon Musk of his vehicle avoiding a collision while in autopilot mode.

In a statement Tesla said, “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.”

About the author

Roberto Baldwin

18 Comments

  • I’ve worked on autonomously navigating robots for hospitals. One of the things we definitely tested was the scenarios of overhanging chords and tubes that may fool the front facing sensors but can get caught with the robot. The fact that Tesla’s didn’t account for trailers clearing their front forward sensors, is disturbing.

    Now another thing to look forward to (or not look forward to) is something that hasn’t been tested thoroughly or not at all. That is how do autonomous vehicles operate when there are many of them on the road. This will depend on many factors, and one of them is whether two or more vehicles passively gather data from their surroundings (think visual cameras) vs actively gathering data by emitting a signal and getting a bounce back, for instance lidar, radar, or sonar.

    If its active sensing of the environment, then such vehicles will confuse themselves and blind each other. We’ve seen autonomous robots just slam into each other at full speed. And, we didn’t have an adequate solution for it (at the time). Our solution was not to have two robots patrolling the same area at the same time. That is adequate in the application space we were in, but I hardly doubt it will work on the road.
    So watch out for this (literally!), when there are more autonomous cars on the road. Such is the growing pains of a promising (?) new technology.
  • Absolutely nothing will be done about the accident. Elon Musk won’t be held responsible for anything. The accident will be considered driver error.

  • “the car did not attempt to break, while a human would have…”

    That’s a ballsy statement to make consider the fact that a human was on the driver seat and didn’t apply the brakes
  • you are assuming that there was no time to apply brakes. the article says that the car did not attempt to break, while a human would have done it even if it had collided.

  • it sounds to me like the truck was simply driving on a road perpendicular to the highway, and ether blew a stop sign or a red light

  • The truck crossed a divided highway perpendicular to traffic? Wow! We haven’t seen the footage, but it’s likely that even a skilled and fully aware driver might not have been able to avoid the accident. What makes it worse is that the full brunt of the force was above the crumple zones. RIP.

  • I think it’s going to be like any other technology development – evolution.

    While you & I might think that should have been done initially, others might argue it’s a privacy debate worth tabling until further consensus is arrived at.
    Personally, I think autopilot is not there yet more becuase too many people are misusing it no matter how many warnings is in the manual or on screens.
  • Not sure why. Could be that people have defeated them. That their false positive rate is much higher than the rate of people who break the rules. That they add a lot more expense and Tesla did the cost/benefit analysis and decided to leave them out.

  • Giving control back to a driver that isn’t paying attention probably isn’t the best idea… That said, an annoying warning sound may be appropriate. Could also catch drivers that are nodding off. Of course, you’d want it to be a damn good detector.

  • Sincere question, not snarky criticism:

    Why doesn’t Tesla add cameras that watch the driver’s eyes and sensors that detect the driver’s hands on the wheel, and as soon as the driver’s eyes aren’t on the road or hands on the wheel for more than a second, the auto pilot disengages?
    Not that those changes would necessarily have prevented this regrettable death, as we don’t know for sure if there was an issue of inattention, but it certainly seems like it would be a worthwhile addition to me.
  • If you actually read the article you would know that it’s not supposed to be representative of the crash. The video was one uploaded *by the deceased* some time before showing off how autopilot actually *prevented* a collision when a truck cut across his lane.

    It appears that he was a proponent and avid supporter of the technology, it’s just a shame that he became one of its first victims as well.
  • Not sure at all why you linked to a video with a white truck. Sure, it’s also white like the trailer, but in the video, the idiotic truck forces a merge without proper spacing between it and the Tesla. The Tesla doesn’t do anything wrong…

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