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When the Self-Driving Car Makes a Mistake

Recently, Road Rules prefaced an article about the ethical issues raised by self-driving cars by noting their potential to almost eliminate crashes.  Lately, we have been reminded in the most dramatic way possible of this need for qualification by news of the first fatality in a vehicle being piloted autonomously.

The fatal crash occurred on May 7th, 2016 in Williston, Florida about 160 kilometers northwest of Orlando. Joshua D. Brown, 40, a former Navy SEAL turned technology company owner from Canton, Ohio was ‘driving’ in his Tesla Model S with its autopilot system fully engaged when a white tractor-trailer turned across his path of travel.  The Tesla’s cameras failed to distinguish the brightness of the turning trailer against the bright daytime sky; hence the brakes weren’t activated.

Mr. Brown did not assume control and brake.  The Tesla’s speed was such that, after its windshield collided with the bottom of the trailer, it continued underneath and then off-road, finally stopping when it collided with a telephone pole.  The police report noted the road surface was dry.

The truck driver claimed Mr. Brown was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” at the time, and “went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him.”  The truck driver reportedly admitted he had not seen Brown watching the movie, but said he could hear it. “It was still playing when he died … a quarter-mile down the road.”

In its June 28th news release, Tesla, founded by Mr. Elon Musk in Fremont, California said it had informed The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the crash “immediately after it occurred.”  Public reporting, however, occurred only after the NHTSA began investigating.

A Tesla spokesperson said drivers are instructed to keep their hands on the steering wheel and to maintain ultimate control.  “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”  In addition to its cameras, the Model S has radar sensors that could have spotted the trailer, but Elon Musk tweeted that the radar “tunes out what looks like an overhead road sign to avoid false braking events.”

Tesla also said that videos couldn’t be watched on the car’s screen. The Florida Highway Patrol said Friday officers found an aftermarket DVD player in the wreckage, but couldn’t confirm whether it was playing when the crash occurred.

Tesla said this was the first fatal crash in the more than 200 million kilometers traveled by its self-driving cars, which compares to a fatality every 150 million km for all other vehicles on US roads.  Karl Brauer from Kelley Blue Book, a US vehicle research company said this was a wake-up call to reassess the readiness of self-driving technology.

Engineering expert William Harwin, of the (UK) University of Reading, said, “Sadly, Joshua Brown joins others, such as William Huskisson, who was the first fatality in a train accident in 1830.  Ultimately, Huskisson’s high-profile death did not prevent the widespread adoption of revolutionary new technology and, I hope, neither will Mr. Brown’s.” 

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