Should Fatal Tesla Accident Make Automakers Rethink Autonomous Cars?

In the wake of a fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S in autopilot mode, the auto industry may need to rethink the future of autonomous driving.

Charles Murray

July 1, 2016

3 Min Read
Should Fatal Tesla Accident Make Automakers Rethink Autonomous Cars?

A recent fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S in autopilot mode shows that the auto industry may need to rethink its public statements about the future of autonomous driving, experts said.

”This really shows that full autonomy is still a complete moonshot,” Kyle Landry, research associate for Lux Research’s autonomous systems team, told Design News in an interview when news broke of the accident on July 1. “You have companies like Tesla, Google, and even Nissan saying that they’re going to have autonomous cars on the road by 2020. But this shows that the technology isn’t going to be ready for that 2020 timeframe.”

The accident, which occurred on May 7th in Williston, Fla., happened when a Tesla Model S driver, Joshua Brown of Canton, Ohio, had his vehicle in "Autopilot" mode, which features lanekeeping, automatic braking, and automatic steering. Public agencies investigating the accident have told news outlets that a white tractor trailer drove across a Florida highway in front of the Model S and the car drove under it without braking. A blog on Tesla’s website suggested the electric car’s sensors didn’t see the white trailer against the backdrop of a brightly lit sky.

According to the Associated Press Brown, technology entrepreneur and former Navy Seal, was reportedly watching a Harry Potter movie when the crash occurred. The driver of the truck told AP that the movie could still be heard playing in the vehicle after the crash occurred.


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Tesla described the accident as a “tragic loss” but added that the accident was the first known fatality in over 130 million miles of Autopilot driving. ”Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” the company wrote on its website.

Landry of Lux suggested that automakers have fallen victim to the hype around self-driving vehicles and have made public predictions that are too strong. "Tesla still has the same challenges as every other automaker,” Landry said. “Their technology still has troubles with inclement weather, with monitoring complex environments, and with new scenarios.”

Lux has repeatedly said in the past that full autonomy won’t be sufficiently reliable until the 2030 timeframe, Landry said.

”This is what the auto industry has been worrying about – that these vehicles would be pushed out onto the public roads without being fully tested,” added another auto industry expert who declined to be named. “The problem is that that there is no mechanism in the system to enable it to know what it doesn’t know.”

Brown was a Tesla enthusiast and regularly posted videos to his YouTube channel of his car operating in Autopilot mode. In the video below, posted in April 2016 the Autopilot feature swerves to prevent a highway collision.

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 32 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

(Main image source: Tesla Motors)

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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