The United States reached a sober milestone this summer when its first fatality involving a self-driving car was recorded in May. According to reports, the driver of the Tesla Model S was using the car's “Autopilot” automated driving system when a tractor-trailer truck turned in front of it just outside of Gainesville, Florida. Due to the brightness of the sky at the time, neither driver nor car noticed the bright white side of the truck and the car slammed into it at full speed.
The roof of the Tesla was sheared completely off and the driver of the car was killed instantly, while the truck driver was unharmed. According to a spokesperson for Tesla, a perfect storm of mishaps led to the crash:
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.
Tesla vehicles come pre-loaded with a warning message that plays each time Autopilot is activated. In the message, the car reminds drivers that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times," and warns drivers to "maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle.”
In a press release issued after the incident, Tesla Motors assured the public that their cars and their Autopilot feature remain perfectly safe:
As more real-world miles accumulate and the software logic accounts for increasingly rare events, the probability of injury will keep decreasing. 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.
While the driver of the truck stated that the Tesla’s driver was watching Harry Potter at the time of the crash, Tesla contends that it is not possible to view videos while the car is in operation. Tesla had conducted over 130 million miles of self-driving tests without incident prior to this crash.
Auto magazines and some news outlets are already coming to Tesla’s defense, arguing that the Autopilot feature is not to blame for this fatality, although opinions remain mixed.
As more and more aspects of our daily lives shift to being automated, it’s natural that accidents and unexpected consequences will occur as kinks get ironed out. If self-driving car manufacturers can find ways to find and fix these problems without any further loss of human life, the prospect of a fully-automated future could seem much closer to being realized.