Autopilot Death Highlights Tesla’s Gamble to Rush Beta Technology to Market

The first reported death of a driver using Tesla’s self-driving technology has caused the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to open an investigation into the beta technology Tesla rushed to market.

Other companies including Toyota, Nissan, BMW, and Google are developing self-driving technology but are not expected to make their technology available to the public for several years due in part to safety issues and liability concerns.

Reports indicate that forty-year old Joshua Brown of Ohio was killed when the Tesla Model S set to autopilot slammed into an 18-wheeler the autopilot failed to detect on May 7. Here is how Tesla described the incident in a statement about the crash and investigation:

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.

The company which provides Tesla with it’s Automatic Emergency Breaking technology, Mobileye, issued a statement explaining that it’s automatic breaking technology is currently only equipped to deal with “rear-end collision avoidance” and that “Lateral Turn Across Path detection capabilities” will become available “beginning in 2018.”

Several reporters have warned about Tesla’s gamble to release the autopilot technology so soon. Bertel Schmitt writing in the Daily Kanban discussed the issue in October 2015 in a post titled, Automakers worried reckless Musk could set back autonomous drive.

During the show [Tokyo Motor Show], Toyota takes journalists on a hands-fee ride along Tokyo’s freeways. Nissan even lets journalists experience the holy grail of autonomous driving – hands-free inner city traffic. Despite the fact that the tech of both looks much more polished and way more capable than Tesla’s Autopilot, the companies are far from a commercial release. Both plan for four more years of testing and refinement, before they will make real autonomous drive available to paying customers, even if this means that other, less cautious competitors steal their thunder.

Breitbart News reported on the potential liability issues in March,

Meanwhile, Tesla faces huge legal risks from the auto-pilot system that it has rushed to market. Tesla released auto-pilot technology to the public in October 2015, and it didn’t take long for videos to surface of people using it irresponsibly and the technology nearly causing accidents. During the test drive of a Model S P90D that inspired this article, the salesman informed us that the car would stop at a red light in auto-pilot mode only if there was a car stopping at the light in front of us. Otherwise, he warned, the 4,500 pound sedan would blow right through the light.

Tesla has tried to shield itself from liability by making it clear that drivers need to remain attentive with their hands on the wheel while using the auto-pilot. Still, if Teslas start crashing with the auto-pilot engaged, lawyers will make the case that Tesla is responsible.

The competition to build the complex technology that allows autonomous driving includes designing a variety of camera, radar, and even laser sensors. Sam Abuelsamid has a great write-up in Forbes explaining some of the more technical aspects surrounding autonomous driving and the fatal Tesla crash.

The deceased driver, Brown, had previously tweeted a video showing a near-miss collision in autopilot mode that Tesla CEO Elon Musk had retweeted to his more than four-million followers.

After spending most of their statement trying to shield themselves from criticism, Tesla finishes by finally offering their condolences to the family of the deceased Tesla enthusiast.

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.


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