The first-known autopilot death has occurred in Florida. And it has happened to the driver of a Tesla Model S, whose electric vehicle apparently failed to identify a large, white trailer crossing the highway while in self-drive mode and ploughed into and under the vehicle.
The accident, which apparently occurred in early May, was revealed by Tesla on its blog on Thursday in the US, and sparked an immediate fall in its share price, and the inevitable questions about whether self-driving technology is really a good thing.
The victim, a tech and Tesla enthusiast named Joshua Brown, had posted videos of his trips using autopilot mode on his Model S. This is one of his videos.
In its blog, Tesla noted that the incident will now be investigated by federal safety authorities. It made the point that it was the first fatal accident in 130 million miles. Other vehicles, it ventured, recorded a fatility ever 90 million miles.
“What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S,” Tesla wrote in its blog. “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 it was “important” to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is a new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.
“When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it.”
“Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert. Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.”
Tesla shares on Thursday fell 2.5 per cent on the NASDAQ as news broke of NHTSA’s investigation of the fatal crash.