Tesla Autopilot Crash Under NHTSA Investigation - InformationWeek

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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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User Rank: Strategist
7/4/2016 | 10:50:31 AM
Self driving vehicles
We talked about that the whole saturday evening. It seems crazy the driver was watching at Harry Potter on his dvd while driving on a speedway. I suppose he got a complete trust and confidence on his car over time but for me Tesla is not responsible for what happened : they always said it's a "beta" technology.

In my family circle, some consider Tesla should be prosecuted for this accident but the fact is the driver should have kept an eye on the road and hands on the wheel, to react quicky. We all know it's not 100% safe and just a new technology, with fails and risks. Even Google's car, which is much more safe with the 360° radar on the roof can't be used without being mindful of the journey.

Google's technology was already famous for being better, this is a hard news for Tesla. But my opinion is that they're not faulting in the accident.
User Rank: Ninja
7/4/2016 | 7:37:49 AM
Re: Self-Driving Vehicles
Although I think you're right about industrial uses of self-driving vehicles, I have to disagree that there will be a limit on its usefulness. There are still major problems with the technology, it still needs to get better, still needs to be tweaked and used over millions of miles of roads. 

That means it's going to be a slow transition. Yes, for now people should pay attention, but there's very little point in driverless technology if we also have to have a human watching over it. It will be possible in the future to make a driverless car that is more aware than human counterparts and can react faster too.

At that point why would we not move towards removing humans from the equation in driving? Insurance costs come down, fuel efficiency improves, the roads become less dangerous for pedestrians. 

As sad as it will be that people may well die on the road while the technology is improved, I believe it will be worth it in the long run.
User Rank: Ninja
7/3/2016 | 2:29:03 PM
Self-Driving Vehicles
We've had lots of discussion on the IW message center about self-driving vehicles.

There are those who think they will be perfected and rule the highway. There are those wo believe their use will be limited to controlled environments which don't necessarily involve people, i.e. industrial uses or smaller travel routes with controlled enviornments. 

I tend to be in the latter camp. In thinking  more about self-driving vehicles, it's clear that the driver will always have to be aware of the traffic, their surroundings, etc. With the amount of distracted driving that's going on today when we need BOTH hands on the wheel, it's hard to imagine one would get into a car as a passenger with the driver watching videos and looking at their text messages, even with or especially because of autopilot applications, which people can't always control
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