The death of a Tesla-driver whose car was in “Autopilot” mode is a tragic reminder that self-driving cars are in their infancy. We have far, far to go before self-driving vehicles are the norm, though that day remains inevitable.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into the death of a 2015 Tesla Model S driver. The investigation, “calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash.”
Tesla acknowledged the death and the investigation in a blog post titled “A Tragic Loss.” In that post, Tesla wrote:
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. It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.
Neither Tesla nor The NHTSA named the driver, but The New York Times noted that the Florida Highway Patrol identified him as Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio. The newspaper also said Mr. Brown was a Tesla enthusiast who posted many videos of his car in Autopilot mode.
In one of those videos, Mr. Brown described a situation where he said Autopilot mode saved his car from a crash, saying:
Tesla Model S autopilot saved the car autonomously from a side collision from a boom lift truck. I was driving down the interstate and you can see the boom lift truck in question on the left side of the screen on a joining interstate road. Once the roads merged, the truck tried to get to the exit ramp on the right and never saw my Tesla. I actually wasn’t watching that direction and Tessy (the name of my car) was on duty with autopilot engaged. I became aware of the danger when Tessy alerted me with the “immediately take over” warning chime and the car swerving to the right to avoid the side collision.
That video—it’s pretty cool:
Much to Learn
We don’t yet know the circumstances of Mr. Brown’s death. We don’t know if it was a problem with Autopilot, driver error though Autopilot was engaged, a freak accident that defies understanding, or something else altogether.
We do know that autonomous vehicles are far from perfected. Google, Tesla, Detroit, Germany, at least one genius in his basement, and even Apple are working on this challenge. But much work remains to be done and many regulations have yet to be developed. It will be many years before autonomous vehicles are even a sizable minority of vehicles, let alone the norm. This accident—tragic though it is—will hopefully neither derail nor slow that process down.
In the meanwhile, my heart goes out to Mr. Brown’s family and friends.