The first American death in a Tesla Model S while using the Autopilot system occurred recently and has many wondering if the system or the driver were at fault. The victim in the crash was Joshua D. Brown, a forty year old technology company owner from Canton, Ohio who loved his Model S enough to post videos of himself behind the wheel of the car with the car in Autopilot mode. His death occurred on May 7th in Willison, Florida when the camera system was unable to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer with the bright sky, failing to engage the brakes, causing Brown to collide with the trailer and become the first fatal victim of this system.
There are several ways we can look at this scenario. First, was Mr. Brown a victim or was he an adrenaline junkie that liked to push things to the limit? Second, was the system at fault for not being able to distinguish the trailer? Third, should we be embracing autonomous driving technology if we aren’t going to be able to keep people safe in the vehicles that have them? Let’s discuss.
Was Mr. Brown a victim? Yes he was, but not of the technology in his Model S. Mr. Brown was a victim of his own confidence in his car. The system installed on the Tesla Model S is as close as we have to actual autonomous driving, which can often lead to owners feeling a bit too secure and putting their attention on other things. Although Tesla has continuously told us not to try and sleep behind the wheel or engage in other activities that would take our mind off the road, many owners have repeatedly shown they are confident in their vehicles and been distracted from what their car is doing.
Although it hasn’t been confirmed yet, the driver of the tractor trailer claimed he heard a video playing when he went to check on Brown after the crash occurred. The officials on the scene confirmed a portable video player was present but cannot confirm if it was in fact playing a video during the crash. If we assume it was playing a movie and Mr. Brown had his attention on this movie instead of the road, he would certainly be at fault for being an extremely distracted driver.
Was the system at fault? Elon Musk has made a statement which informs us the system does use both cameras and radar detection equipment. With this in mind, the radar system should have been able to pick up the trailer when the cameras don’t, but most likely a failsafe was activated instead. The radar system is programmed to ignore overhead signs to avoid unnecessary braking every time you travel under one of these signs. Because the trailer was undistinguishable for the cameras against the sky it seems the radar system would have been disengaged or ignoring it as well, assuming it was an overhead sign that didn’t need to be reacted to.
Should we embrace autonomous driving technology? Absolutely we should. There is no evidence to say the system was at fault and many of the autonomous systems used across a variety of manufacturers have helped to avoid crashed and even saved lives. We are years away from being confident enough in our vehicles to think they can care for us during our entire travels and even the Tesla drivers are supposed to maintain control of the vehicle by staying alert to the drive and taking over control when needed.
While the death of Joshua Brown is tragic, it should hopefully serve as a warning to other owners of the Tesla Model S with the Autopilot system. It’s important to stay alert when your vehicle is driving, not only because your system might not detect what you can with your own eyes, but because of other drivers on the road who could cause you to end up in a collision. Check out this video and learn more about how alert you should be when driving cars with autonomous features. These systems may be better at driving than people, but they aren’t perfect.