Tesla has revealed that a Model S driver died in an accident on 7 May while Autopilot was activated, in what’s thought to be the first fatal crash involving an autonomous vehicle. The driver - 40-year-old Joshua D. Brown - was on a divided highway in Williston, Florida, when a tractor pulled out, at which point neither Brown nor Autopilot reacted.
The Model S passed under the tractor’s trailer, with the bottom of the trailer hitting the windscreen. The car then continued down the road, before leaving the highway and hitting a fence. He died at the scene.
In a statement released on Thursday, Tesla said that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has started a “preliminary evaluation” into the performance of Autopilot during the crash. “This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated,” Tesla said, adding, “Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles.”
Brown was well known in the Tesla community, and just a month before the fatal crash had posted a video on YouTube (below) of Autopilot successfully averting an accident. The video quickly clocked a million views.
Tesla’s Autopilot is at the moment intended to be a driver assist, and more of a ‘semi-autonomous’ mode that requires the driver to be holding the steering wheel at all times. In the statement Tesla notes that “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” but that hasn’t stopped some well-documented abuses of the system. It’s been heavily criticised in some corners for lulling its users into a false sense of security. Earlier this year, a senior Volvo engineer slammed Autopilot, labelling it an “Unsupervised wannabe” that “Gives you the impression that it’s doing more than it is.”
At this early stage of the investigation, it’s not known exactly why Brown didn’t brake himself. Tesla’s statement speculates that he simply did not see “The white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky,” however in a report in the Associated Press, the 62-year-old driver of the tractor claimed to have heard one of the Harry Potter films playing from the car at the crash scene. Tesla responded to the claims, stating that it isn’t possible to watch videos on the main screen found in the Model S.
Find out more about how Autopilot works by watching our video below: