Investigation into the first fatal crash of an autonomous vehicle

2 min read

The American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating the death of Joshua Brown, 40, after his Tesla Model S collided with a Lorry in Florida on May 7 2016. Tesla’s autopilot feature, which automatically changes lane and reacts to traffic, is under scrutiny in the investigation which resulted in the first fatality potentially caused by driverless technology.

Tesla described the incident as “a tragic loss” in a statement on its website on Thursday, June 30. In the statement the company said: “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

Brown was a Tesla enthusiast who posted videos of his car on autopilot to YouTube, including one video of the car avoiding a collision. In the description section of the video, Brown said: “I became aware of the danger when Tessy (the name of my car) alerted me with the ‘immediately take over’ warning chime and the car swerving to the right to avoid the side collision.”

He added: “Hands down the best car I have ever owned and use it to its full extent. It has done many, many amazing things, but this was one of the more interesting things caught on the dashcam.”

The NHTSA said: “Preliminary reports indicate the vehicle crash occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla at an intersection on a non-controlled access highway. The driver of the Tesla died due to injuries sustained in the crash.”

The car continued to travel after passing under the truck’s trailer, veered off the road, and then crashed through two fences and into a power pole, the local police report said. Brown died at the scene. The driver of the truck, Frank Baressi, 62, was uninjured.

Tesla was keen to point out that this is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where its Autopilot was activated. “Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles,” the company said in its statement.

The electric vehicle company proceeded to explain that the Autopilot is an assist feature that requires the driver to keep their hands on the wheel at all times. “The system makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver's hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.”

In its statement, the NHTSA stressed: "The opening of the Preliminary Evaluation should not be construed as a finding that the Office of Defects Investigation believes there is either a presence or absence of a defect in the subject vehicles."

This incident comes at a time when governments around the world are considering how to safely introduce autonomous vehicles on public roads. It will also be the first test of how consumers will react when reminded that they are handing their lives over to sensors and computer code when they switch on the Autopilot feature.