Tesla, and autonomous cars at large suffered a big blow when a Tesla Model S was involved in a fatal road crash. While semi and fully self-driving cars have been involved in previous accidents, this is believed to be the first time a life has been lost with the semi-autonomous option engaged.
The accident occurred when an 18-wheel truck made a left turn right in front of the car, which had been set to autopilot mode by the 45-year-old driver, Joshua Brown. According to information released by NHTSA, Tesla, and Florida Highway Patrol, the unfortunate incident happened after the car’s roof struck against the underside of the trailer and was torn off along with the windshield. After hitting the trailer perpendicularly, the car subsequently emerged on the opposite side of the trailer and continued traveling east along U.S. 27A until it swerved off the road and smashed through two fences, finally striking a power pole. The resultant force made it turn counter-clockwise before stopping.
Ironically, Joshua Brown had been a Tesla Community member who consistently uploaded YouTube videos, showcasing the capabilities of Tesla’s autopilot system. Through a blog post tribute to him, Tesla stated that the crash occurred after the system failed to distinguish between the trailer and brightly lit sky. This was the first time they have dealt with such an incident after more than 130 million autopilot miles have been logged by their customers. Although the autopilot feature is arguably their main selling point, Tesla believes that it is still not yet perfect, and is progressively undergoing improvements.
Even though Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, explained the system failure through his Twitter account, there has been increasing doubt on the ability of autonomous vehicles to avoid possible crashes. The resultant public relations setback has seen the company lose more than 1% value on its shares, as federal highway safety regulators continue investigating the crash.
This incident alone has elicited many reactions not only against Tesla but the autonomous car industry at large. The executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow, for instance, said that he expects Tesla to recall all their vehicles because of the clear-cut defect. Installing an autopilot system in a vehicle, according to him, means that you are basically asking customers to trust the vehicle even if there’s a lawyerly warning to stay alert. Some experts, as a matter of fact, feel that requiring drivers to keep their hands on the wheel, contravenes the purpose of the auto-pilot feature.
The president of CarLab Inc, Eric Noble, on the other hand, put into question Tesla’s statement that autopilot “is a new technology and still in public beta phase”. According to him, Tesla is the only automotive company that has the audacity to sell unproven technology to its customers. He further added that the company should be comprehensively testing its technology with professional drivers, not its customers.
Although this is the first time such an accident has occurred, Tesla has faced criticisms in the past for offering “a false sense of security”. Back in April, Trent Victor, Volvo’s senior technical leader of crash avoidance, through an interview with The Verge, expressed his concerns about Tesla’s semi-autonomous feature. He felt that the feature is more of an “unsupervised wannabe,” giving the impression of doing more than it actually is. Coincidentally, a couple of days after his statement, precisely a day before Brown’s fatal crash, five teenagers crashed and survived an accident in a Tesla Model S in Germany.
To be fair, Tesla does not market its Model S as a perfect Level 4 fully-autonomous vehicle. While some experts may give it a Level 3 rating, which means the driver can fully surrender safety-critical controls under specific conditions, Tesla still insists that it is only a Level 2, which is currently in beta phase. That means the system facilitates simultaneous automation of only two controls.
Developments are currently underway in the automotive industry to launch a fully autonomous Level 4 vehicle in 2017. According to Trent, Volvo is expected to release the maiden model that drivers can even take a nap and trust their vehicles to safely deliver them to their destinations. Only time will tell if that is achievable over the long haul, considering increasing doubt on the safety capabilities of semi and fully autonomous vehicles.