12th July 2016

Recent Tesla fatality should not slow down driverless car development

May 7th 2016 sadly marked the world’s first motoring fatality involving a vehicle driving itself autonomously1, when Joshua Brown from Ohio was killed in his Tesla Model S. He was a well-known Tesla fan, regularly posting videos online, including one showing his car’s Autopilot mode enabling it to steer so as to avoid colliding with a truck.

The fatal accident reportedly occurred partly because the sensors on Joshua’s Tesla Model S didn’t pick out a white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the road ahead, presumably because the sky was too bright to allow it to identity the vehicle.

At face value, this highlights that driverless car technology, despite being hailed as far safer than human driving, isn’t infallible. Manufacturers from Audi and Mercedes to Nissan and Volvo have accelerated the development of autonomous vehicles enormously in recent years but it has to be remembered that this exciting new arena is still in its relative infancy.

Tesla’s Autopilot function itself is still officially classified as a ‘public beta’ system, which means that drivers who try it out are effectively consenting guinea pigs. Autopilot is disabled by default and requires anyone using it to acknowledge certain legal disclaimers. It warns drivers that it is “an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times”, expecting users to “maintain control and responsibility” for their Tesla when Autopilot is switched on and to “be prepared to take over at any time”4.

Although Joshua’s death is tragic, as is every life lost on the roads in whatever circumstances, various sources have reported that he was watching Harry Potter when the crash happened. To clarify, the Tesla Model S doesn’t allow DVDs to be watched on the move via the enormous tablet screen in the centre of its minimalist dashboard, but the truck driver, Frank Baressi, is reported as saying that the film, which he heard but admittedly didn’t see, “was still playing when he [Mr Brown] died”. The presence of a portable DVD player was confirmed by Florida police5.

As a leading company on the world’s telematics stage, one of Trak Global’s primary focusses is on improving road safety, which is evidently and passionately promoted by Carrot Insurance, our young and newly qualified driver insurance brand, along with Appy Fleet, a purely app-based solution for fleet managers, with benefits including smoother and hence safer driving. If Joshua was watching a film whilst travelling in his Model S set to Autopilot mode, it’s not the kind of behaviour we’d condone and clearly contradicts Tesla’s safety warnings.

Mr Baressi, the truck driver, is reported to have said that the Tesla “went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him”, revealing that irresponsibly excessive speed could also have been to blame. Combined with Joshua possibly having been distracted with his hands not on the steering wheel and his eyes not on the road ahead, it’s clear that the Tesla’s sensors and other systems can’t shoulder all the blame, although the on-board technology’s ultimate awareness is indeed called into question.

Road safety statistics in the US indicate that around 90 people a day die in car accidents, so it’s likely that perhaps 89 others lost their lives the same day as Joshua, but the media inevitably latched on to the Tesla story as it puts a faint question mark over the safety of driverless vehicle technology. However, data points to human error being the cause of 94% of motor accidents in the States6 and Tesla was swift to draw attention to its vehicles having covered 130 million miles up to the point of Joshua’s regrettable death, compared to the average duration of 94 million miles between fatal car accidents in the US.

Driverless vehicles are only just beginning to be trialled whilst mingled with other conventional road users and various risks will unarguably continue to exist for several years as manufacturers refine their technologies. So many objects in life have the potential to cause harm if they are used irresponsibly, though, from breadknives and hedges trimmers to drones and motorcycles.

Autonomous vehicle technology from sensors, radars and ‘moral thinking ability’ to synchronisation and convoys may well eventually mean that hardly any collisions will occur at all, let alone fatalities.  For now, though, anyone using a vehicle’s autonomous features needs to do so with the realisation that such systems are not yet perfected, other human road users currently dominate the roads, and due care and attention still need to be taken. Although any death on the road is one too many, the world’s first autonomously-piloted fatality shouldn’t make such technology’s pioneers overly anxious and it’s hoped that all the exciting projects currently being trialled or in the pipeline will continue at the same pace.


1 https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/30/tesla-autopilot-death-self-driving-car-elon-musk

2 http://www.forbes.com/sites/briansolomon/2016/06/30/the-first-self-driving-car-death-launches-tesla-investigation/#78608de062d0

3 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/17/self-driving-car-crash-proves-nothing-tesla-autopilot

4 https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/01/tesla-driver-killed-autopilot-self-driving-car-harry-potter

5 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-tesla-autopilot-dvd-idUSKCN0ZH5BW

6 https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812115