This was inevitable, but it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. The first known fatality from an accident involving a self-driving vehicle is being investigated.
On Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a formal investigation of a 2015 Tesla Model S sedan crashing into a tractor-trailer. Joshua D. Brown died in the accident in Williston, Florida on May 7. Apparently the car’s cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky and didn’t apply the brakes.
Brown, a 40-year-old from Canton, Ohio, was an owner of a technology company and a member of the Navy SEALs for 11 years. He was excited about his Tesla, and even nicknamed his car “Tessy.” Brown wrote, “Hands down the best car I have ever owned and use it to its full extent.”
Brown’s Tesla was in Autopilot mode and he was watching Harry Potter when his vehicle collided with the 18-wheeler.
“It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter-mile down the road,” Frank Baressi, the 62-year-old driver of the truck and owner of Okemah Express LLC said. “He went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him.”
From the Associated Press:
Preliminary reports indicate the crash occurred when Baressi’s rig turned left in front of Brown’s Tesla at an intersection of a divided highway where there was no traffic light, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. Brown died at the scene of the crash, which occurred May 7 in Williston, Florida, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report. The city is southwest of Gainesville.
By the time firefighters arrived, the wreckage of the Tesla — with its roof sheared off completely — had come to rest in a nearby yard hundreds of feet from the crash site, assistant chief Danny Wallace of the Williston Fire Department told The Associated Press. The driver was pronounced dead, “Signal 7” in the local firefighters’ jargon, and they respectfully covered the wreckage and waited for crash investigators to arrive.
Autopilot mode makes frequent checks, ensuring that the driver’s hands are on the steering wheel, and gives visual and audible alerts if no hands are detected, and will gradually slow down until the driver responds.
Tesla released a statement on Brown’s death, but did not identify him by name.
We learned yesterday evening that NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles. It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.
The statement ended by saying:
The customer who died in this crash had a loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss. He was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community, a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission. We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.
Tesla founder Elon Musk mentioned Brown’s death on Twitter, “Our condolences for the tragic loss.”
This could be a giant setback for autonomous driving cars that utilize sophisticated computer software, sensors, cameras and radar to navigate.
Of course we must remember that there were 32,675 traffic fatalities in 2014.