The U.S. government is investigating the first fatal crash involving Tesla Autopilot


The U.S. government is investigating the first reported death of a driver whose car was was driving on autopilot mode when he crashed. Joshua D. Brown, a 40-year-old Ohio man, died May 7 when his 2015 Tesla Model S sedan, failed to activate its brakes and hit a truck on a highway near Williston, Florida, drawing scrutiny to a key technology the electric-vehicle maker is betting on for the future of self-driving cars.

Tesla website states that “Model S comes with Autopilot capabilities designed to make your highway driving not only safer, but stress free.” But details of the accident raises questions about autonomous and semi-autonomous cars, their capabilities, limits and over whether self-driving cars are ready for the real world. According to Tesla, Autopilot didn’t notice the white side of the tractor truck which was against a brightly lit sky, because of this the brake wasn’t applied. Tesla said in a blog post that the fatal crash is the first known fatality in more than 130 million miles of Autopilot driving.

According to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group in Washington, Tesla’s Autopilot system needs to be able to recognize all possible road conditions. He also said if the Autopilot system didn’t recognize the tractor trailer, then Tesla will have to recall the cars so as to fix the flaw.

That’s a clear-cut defect and there should be a recall, When you put Autopilot in a vehicle, you’re telling people to trust the system even if there is lawyerly warning to keep your hands on the wheel

Tesla said in the post on Thursday that it requires specific knowledge from the vehicle owner that Autopilot “is new technology and still in public beta phase” before it will enable the system. Eric Noble, president of CarLab Inc., a consulting firm in Orange, California said no experienced automaker sells a technology such as this which isn’t proven to customers..

There’s not an experienced automaker out there who will let this kind of technology on the road in the hands of consumers without further testing. They will test it over millions of miles with trained drivers, not with consumers.

This might be a huge setback for the company, Tesla has always prided itself on its safety record. In August 2013, the Model S sedan was awarded a 5-star safety rating by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to the company in a post:

“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,” Tesla said. “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.”

Tesla said that 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.” Earlier on, the victim posted videos on YouTube demonstrating the ability of Autopilot to avoid accidents.

Self-driving cars are expected to save lives by anticipating accidents before they happen. According to a statement made by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, 90 percent of car accidents are caused by errors made by humans, additionally, distracted or drowsy driving accounts for some 13 percent of those crashes. The accidents cost about $870 billion a year globally.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking at the design and performance of Tesla’s system as part of its investigation, if need be all Tesla sedans will be recalled so as to fix the flaw.

Tesla Motors, Inc. is an American automotive and energy storage company that designs, manufactures, and sells luxury electric cars, electric vehicle powertrain components, and battery products. Tesla Motors is a public company that trades on the NASDAQ stock exchange under the symbol TSLA. During the first quarter of 2013, Tesla posted profits for the first time in its history. Tesla manufactures equipment for home and office battery charging, and has installed a network of high-powered Superchargers across North America, Europe and Asia. The company also operates a Destination Charging program, under which shops, restaurants and other venues are offered fast chargers for their customers.