Is the system at fault or is this an accident no one could have prevented?
It is now official, the first death at the hands of an autonomous vehicle has happened. The accident occurred last month outside of Williston, Florida and we are only now hearing the details about the incident because the NHTSA has stated that it's investigating the matter. The vehicle involved was the Tesla Model S featuring the semi-autonomous Autopilot feature. As Tesla was quick to point out, despite working fairly well, the system is in its Beta mode and there are disclaimers that warn drivers to keep hands on the wheel and stay alert.
The driver behind the wheel was Ohio resident Joshua Brown, whose obituary mentions that he was a Navy SEAL who founded his own tech company. As a tech enthusiast, Brown was a fan of the Tesla and nicknamed his Model S "Tessy." He is even responsible for posting a viral video showcasing how Autopilot kept his car from being hit by a merging truck. Horribly, the accident that claimed Brown's life occurred under similar conditions as the near miss he had recorded only a month prior. The Model S was traveling in the opposite direction as the semi-truck that it struck. When the semi-truck made a left turn, the sensors on the Model S failed to recognize the tall edge of the trailer and according to Tesla, were blinded by the lighting in the area.
As a result, the Model S did not brake and proceeded to crash. This isn't the first time that Tesla's sensors have failed to notice a tall yet dangerous obstacle. Since the Model S failed to stop, it drove underneath the trailer, ripping off the top end of the car. It then continued rolling, smashed through two fences, hit a power pole, and rotated counter clockwise before coming to a stop. Brown died at the scene. Despite the tragedy, there is a silver lining. As Tesla pointed out, this is the first fatality to occur in over 130 million miles of autonomous driving. Meanwhile, cars piloted by humans tend to cause one death per 94 million miles. Hopefully automakers motivated to keep drivers safe will further refine their systems to make autonomous cars even safer.