Minor incidents involving Teslas driven in Autopilot mode have been seen in the past, but we have just witnessed the first major incident of a vehicle with the semi-autonomous driving function engaged. The accident occurred on May 7th in Florida and involved Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old former Navy SEAL and technology entrepreneur from Ohio. Brown was driving a 2015 Model S, and as such, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has decided to start an investigation on 25,000 cars.
Tesla explained the situation as such: “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. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. 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. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.”
Details have been minimal so far, but this is what we know for sure. What was left of the Model S was found hundreds of feet from the initial crash site, with its roof completely sheared off. Such complete damage to the car as well as the momentum to carry the crashed vehicle that far from the initial crash site indicated a very high rate of speed during the collision. Tesla also claims that even the driver himself had not realized the tractor-trailer. Losing an object against the sky is possible, but a tractor-trailer is a very large object to miss – Tesla’s claim that even the driver himself did not see it coming is pretty hard to believe.
At the moment, Tesla is facing a lot of scrutiny from regulators and other competing carmakers since the release of Autopilot in October. It was the first commercial semi-autonomous driving system that allows drivers to fully remove their hands from the wheel. To many in the auto industry, Tesla deployed this technology to the public way earlier than it should have. It will be interesting to see how this tragic accident affects Tesla as well as other carmakers working on autonomous driving technology. Accidents and fatalities were expected to happen as this new technology came out, but the potential benefits from the convenience may not be worth the inevitable costs. The ultimate question is how to continue developing the technology as responsibly as possible, and all eyes are on Tesla.