Man at His Best

Tesla Is Under Investigation After A Fatal Model S Autopilot Crash

This is the first fatal crash that has occurred while a Tesla has had Autopilot engaged. ​

BY CHRIS PERKINS AND ANDREW DEL-COLLE | Jul 2, 2016 | Automotive

We've seen minor incidents with Teslas driven in Autopilot mode, but it seems like we now have our first major incident with the semi-autonomous driving function engaged. Tesla said in a statement today that NHTSA has opened up a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a fatal accident with a Model S and a tractor trailer.

Per a tweet from CNBC's Phil Lebau, the accident occurred May 7th in Florida. In a statement given to the press, NHTSA says that this incident,"calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash." Tesla shares have reportedly fallen around 3 percent in after-hours trading according to CNBC. The car involved in the crash was a 2015 Model S, and NHTSA says it will investigate 25,000 cars.

From Tesla:

While details remain minimal so far, there are a few quick points that can be made based off Tesla's description of the accident.

First off, this isn't the first time we've seen seen a potential issue with Autopilot not being able to sense obstructions of a certain height. Earlier this year a Model S owner claimed that his Autopilot-equipped car crashed itself into a trailer. While Tesla debunked this claim and said that the man irresponsibly used the Model S's Summon parking feature, the incident showed that the Model S's hardware does have limitations in terms of detecting forward obstructions. Perhaps that happened here when the semi crossed in front of the Model S.

Tesla also points out that if the car had hit the front or rear of the trailer the occupant would have likely survived thanks to the Model S's crash safety system. Of course, there's no way to know if that is true, and the fact remains that this isn't what happened.

What is perhaps most worrisome is the issue of whether the driver was even paying attention at all before the accident happened. Tesla says that the car's hardware and the driver couldn't see the tractor trailer's white siding because of the "brightly lit sky" behind it, but until we find out more, there seems to be a bit of guessing going on here. Worth noting is that the Model S's Autopilot system relies on a forward-facing radar and camera to "see" obstacles, and though it can be easy for humans to lose an object against the sky, a tractor trailer is a very big object to miss if you are actively engaged in the driving experience.

Tesla has faced plenty of scrutiny from regulators and other carmakers since the release of Autopilot in October. It is the first commercial semi-autonomous driving system that allows drivers to fully remove their hands from the wheel, and for many, Tesla deployed it to the public sooner than was believed to be safe or responsible. The fact that the company called the rollout a "beta" didn't help either.

Almost immediately after Autopilot's release there were issues with drivers experimenting with the technology, and while there have been instances of the Autopilot preventing incidents, there have also been numerous smaller accidents and even reports of drivers sleeping while at the wheel. Again, we do not know near enough yet to say definitively what happened here, but this surely won't help Tesla's case with critics.

In its statement, Telsa said the driver killed "was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community," but did not release any further details.

According to The Verge, the Model S owner killed in the accident reportedly was the same driver that recently posted a video of a close call while in Autopilot mode. The video was posted to YouTube by a man named Joshua Brown, whose obituary matches the circumstances of the crash as described in Tesla's statement. In the video, the Model S quickly veers right to avoid being hit by a truck moving into its lane, showing just one of the many potential benefits of autonomous technologies.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk offered in his condolences in a tweet sent out shortly after news of the crash broke.

While NHTSA conducts its investigation and more details come to light, it will be telling to see how the world—especially the media—reacts to this news. Considering this is the first fatality to occur on public roads with an advanced semi-autonomous technology engaged, there is the possibility that the technology, one that almost every carmaker in the world is working on in varying capacities to reduce everything from deaths to emissions, will suffer a set back.

That said, accidents and fatalities are bound to happen as we move forward with such a new technology. As we have done in so many other fields, society has to decide if it thinks the potential benefits outweigh the inevitable costs. If we do, then the ultimate question is how to develop the technology as responsibly as possible, and right now, all eyes are on Tesla.

From: Road & Track.