Tesla Autopilot Crash Under NHTSA Investigation - InformationWeek

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7/2/2016
12:06 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Tesla Autopilot Crash Under NHTSA Investigation

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into the circumstances surrounding a fatal accident involving a Tesla being driven under autopilot.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an inquiry into the autopilot system in Tesla's Model S following the death of a driver who was using the system.

In a statement posted on the Tesla Motors website on June 30, the company acknowledged the inquiry and characterized the incident as "the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated."

The NHTSA said in a statement Tesla had alerted the agency to the crash, which occurred on May 7 in Williston, Fla.

The Levy Journal Online, which covers Levy County, Fla., where the crash occurred, described the accident based on an account provided by the Florida Highway Patrol. A tractor-trailer was traveling west on US 27A and made a left turn onto NE 140 Court as the Tesla driver was heading in the opposite direction. The Tesla passed underneath the 18-wheeler and its roof collided with the truck. It then continued along the road before striking two fences and a utility pole.

(Image: Google)

(Image: Google)

"Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied," Tesla said in its statement. "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."

The failure of Tesla's computer vision system to distinguish the truck from the similarly colored sky appears to have been compounded by radar code designed to reduce false positives during automated braking. Asked on Twitter why the Tesla's radar didn't detect what its cameras missed, CEO Elon Musk responded, "Radar tunes out what looks like an overhead road sign to avoid false braking events."

The driver of the Model S, identified in media reports as 40-year-old Joshua D. Brown from Canton, Ohio, died on the scene.

The driver of the truck, 62-year-old Frank Baressi, told the Associated Press that Brown was "playing Harry Potter on the TV screen" at the time of the crash.

A spokesperson for the Florida Highway Patrol did not immediately respond to a request to confirm details about the accident.

In its June 30 statement, Tesla said drivers who engage Autopilot are warned to keep both hands on the wheel at all times. Autopilot, despite its name, is intended as an assistive feature rather than an alternative to manual control.

The incident has stoked doubts about the viability of self-driving cars and the maturity of Tesla's technology. Clearly, a computer vision system that cannot separate truck from sky in certain light conditions could use further improvement. It was unclear at press time whether Tesla will face any liability claims related to its code or sensing hardware.

However, Tesla insisted in its statement that, when Autopilot is used under human supervision, "the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving."

(Image: Tesla)

(Image: Tesla)

In April, at an event in Norway, Musk said, "The probability of having an accident is 50% lower if you have Autopilot on," according to Electrek.

That may be, but data isn't the only consideration. When human lives are at stake, perception and emotion come into play. Automated driving systems will have to be demonstrably better than human drivers before people trust them with their lives.

Yet, perfection is too much to expect from autopilot systems. Machines fail, and fallible people are likely to remain in the loop. In aviation, automation is common. It has prompted concerns that it degrades the skills pilots need when intervention is called for. If the same holds true for cars with autopilot systems, we can expect to become worse drivers, less able to respond to emergencies, even as our autopilot systems reduce fatalities overall.

There may be no getting around the fact that, given current vehicle designs, driving down a highway at high speed entails some degree of risk, whether a person or a computer is at the wheel.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio
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Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
7/5/2016 | 4:02:49 PM
Re: Just some thoughts

It amazes me that someone would trust their life to "autopilot" while driving.  And then to be so trustful that they would like to watch a movie while doing it.  This makes absolutely no sense to me.

vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
7/5/2016 | 4:00:01 PM
Re: Self-Driving Vehicles
@jastroff - I love your ketchup analogy!  You hit the nail on the head!
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
7/5/2016 | 3:39:51 PM
Re: Self-Driving Vehicles
Good point -- >> Exactly - if you still have to pay attention, then why not just do it yourself? 

I thihk there are machines that do things for us, but which we monitor. Sometimes often, sometimes we just read dials.

But with a car, we are talking about sitting IN the machine, and being on the roadway with other machines, It's a very strange set of circumstances. It's not like an automated factory where someone watches the "line" to make sure the ketchup bottles are all getting filled properly. 
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
7/5/2016 | 2:13:47 PM
Re: Just some thoughts
"The driver must always be in control"

Exactly, which is why you can't be watching Harry Potter movies when "chaperoning" your "driverless" car.

 

 
NJ Mike
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NJ Mike,
User Rank: Moderator
7/5/2016 | 11:04:42 AM
Just some thoughts
"People get killed all the time when an idiot in a big rig turns in front of them illegally without enough distance to complete the turn" -- from the article, we don't know if the truck turned illegally or didn't allow enough distance.

 

The point is made that automation is degrading pilot skills.  That will be magified with cars for two big reasons.  First, getting a pilot's license takes a lot more training than a drivers license.  Secondly, there are lot more systems used to control air flight to keep air craft organized in the sky.  Therefore, if a jumbo jet makes an unexpected turn, there is rarely another aircraft in the area.  And we can add to that the many regulations pertaining to a pilot's behavior before flight (such as no drinking for a specified number of hours before takeoff).

 

JMHO - all this neat technology should be used to assist the driver, but the driver must always be in control.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
7/5/2016 | 7:32:54 AM
Re: Self-Driving Vehicles
Although the human eye is (probably) better at diferntiating between bright colours than the Tesla's sensor system, I do agree, human drivers make awful mistakes all the time. If all cars were automated with location data in a central database of some kind, this sort of collision would never happen. It would be impossible. 

I'm looking forward to automated cars, but just as with the earliest of vehicles and safety concerns we weren't aware of yet, there will unfortunately be deaths and injuries on the road to full autonomy. When we get there though, the stats suggest we'll all be far safer. 
FreonPSandoz
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FreonPSandoz,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/5/2016 | 3:04:19 AM
Re: Self-Driving Vehicles
People get killed all the time when an idiot in a big rig turns in front of them illegally without enough distance to complete the turn. I can't understand why on earth anyone thinks that a human driver would have been any more successful at avoiding a collision than the Autopilot was.
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
7/4/2016 | 11:57:55 PM
Re: Self-Driving Vehicles
"there's very little point in driverless technology if we also have to have a human watching over it..."

Exactly - if you still have to pay attention, then why not just do it yourself?  Who is willing to risk their life depending on a hunk of metal to think for you?  Computers are only as smart as the people who programmed them, and as we can now see, those people didn't cover every circumstance.  Talk about a bug in the system...yikes.  No thanks!
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
7/4/2016 | 12:39:35 PM
Re: Second thought
Excellent point -- driving in controlled environments -- as several car companies  are doing. Seems like Tesla took a risk based on arrogrance? Can't tell, but excellent point

>> That's extremely dangerous on my mind, both for the driver and every other vehicles and it should still be tested during years on private circuits by professionals.
paulno
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paulno,
User Rank: Strategist
7/4/2016 | 10:58:47 AM
Second thought
By the way I don't understand that kind of vehicles can be driven by common people on ordinary roads. That's extremely dangerous on my mind, both for the driver and every other vehicles and it should still be tested during years on private circuits by professionals.

 

That's the case for planes, copters, sport cars and so on, it's amazing the life of ordinary people who are just going to work like any other day anything could be destroyed by some others that accept to take thoughtless risks. They can do what they want regarding them but I could not accept it if my daughter's were injured  in such a situation.
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