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Business Management

Tesla Autopilot crash: A tragedy, but likely the first of many

On 7th May, Joshua Brown, 40, put his Tesla Model S into Autopilot mode. The car collided with a large, white 18-wheel truck in Florida, and Brown was killed. A police report says the car’s roof “was torn off by the force of the collision”. An investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is now underway.

According to a statement from Tesla, the truck wasn’t seen by the Tesla because of a brightly lit sky, possibly mistaking it for an overhead sign, and so failed to slow down when the truck turned in front of the car. A subsequent statement from Mobileye, the Israeli company involved in creating the Autopilot feature, said the technology wasn’t built to handle this specific scenario.

Reports have emerged suggesting Brown may have been watching Harry Potter on a portable DVD player while driving. Brown recently posted a video online showing the same Model S preventing a similar crash to the May 7th event. His YouTube channel is full of videos shot from behind the wheel of his Tesla.

What next?

What happened to Brown was horrible, and our thoughts go out to his family. But it’s unlikely to stop the arrival of driverless cars.

“Let's be clear about one thing,” wrote Roger Lanctot, analyst at Strategy Analytics, “The cat is out of the bag.  The horse is out of the barn.  The autopilot is on the road.”

“This train has left the station,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart last week. “I don’t think it’s going to be stopped, especially if it’s happening at a lower rate than without automation.”

On average, there is one fatality per hundred million miles driven. According to Tesla’s post on the accident, Autopilot has over 130 million miles. Google has driven some 1.6 million miles autonomously. Add in all the other companies currently working on self-driving technology, and it seems that autonomous vehicles may still be the safer option.

While public perception of driverless technologies may get worse, they were never very high to begin with. When we spoke with Professor Nick Reed, Academy Director of Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) last year, he spoke about such an event as an inevitability. He predicts the number of collisions on the road could be reduced by up to 90%, and it’s up to companies to be ready to show off examples of where crashes have been prevented as well as answer questions about collisions that probably wouldn’t have happened under vehicles controlled by humans.

Assuming the NHTSA investigation doesn’t lead to an outright ban on driverless cars on public roads, this is likely to be the first of many such incidents. The roads of the near future look set to be packed with a mixed fleet of cars all featuring different levels of automation, all requiring different levels of driver attention. There’s no guarantees every car will be able to deal with every situation that comes up on the road. Combine that with millions of human drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and even animals, and there is likely to be a long bedding-in period.

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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