NHTSA Launches ‘Review’ of Tesla Autopilot Fatal Crash

Elon Musk (Haiko Jumne / AFP / Getty)
Haiko Jumne / AFP / Getty

After a Tesla Model S with its semi-autonomous autopilot on crashed into a tractor trailer last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) Office of Defects initiated a formal “review.”

The NHTSA has opened a preliminary evaluation into a May 7 Florida accident involving a Tesla car to evaluate the circumstances and determine whether the company’s Autopilot system performed as expected during the accident. While semi- and fully-autonomous cars have crashed before, this is believed to be the first death related to a vehicle with a semi-autonomous driving feature engaged.

The crash of Ohio resident Joshua Brown, 45, in the driver’s seat of his 2015 Model S with Autopilot activated, happened just outside of Williston in Florida. The 18-wheel semi truck and trailer made a left turn in front of the electric car. Brown died at the scene when “the car’s roof struck the underside of the trailer as it passed under the trailer”, the Levy Journal reported.

According to Tesla, neither the car’s sensors nor the driver noticed the trailer, because its white exterior was difficult to detect against the “brightly lit sky.” Tesla blamed “[t]he 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.”

There has been a raging debate in the industry over whether rolling out semi-autonomous features incrementally is safe, according to Re/code. Opponents argue that this introduces the potential of human error to autonomous technology; while proponents argue exposure to semi-autonomous technology is a necessity and allows consumers to become more comfortable and experienced in using the feature.

Joshua Brown had been an active member of the Tesla community, having uploaded many videos on his YouTube channel, including ones showing the Autopilot system, with one event supposedly capturing the attention of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who tweeted about it on his account.

In a brief statement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on June 30:

“ODI [Office of Defects] has identified, from information provided by Tesla and from other sources, a report of a fatal highway crash involving a 2015 Tesla Model S operating with automated driving systems (“Autopilot”) activated,” said the NHTSA. “This preliminary evaluation is being opened to examine the design and performance of any automated driving systems in use at the time of the crash.”

Tesla disclosed:

“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.”=

Many industry experts have harshly criticized Tesla’s willingness to put on the highway new technology that is essentially still in “beta” stage.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told Bloomberg that if the Autopilot system did not recognize the semi-truck, then Tesla must immediately recall all vehicles equipped with this system.

“That’s a clear-cut defect and there should be a recall,” Ditlow said. “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.”


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