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Investigation instigated after fatal Tesla accident

01 July 2016

US authorities are investigating the first death caused by a self-driving vehicle; an evaluation will be conducted on the autopilot feature in the Tesla Model S.

Image courtesy of Hadrian/Shutterstock

The driver of the Tesla was killed in Florida in May after his car collided with a lorry. 

According to a statement on the Tesla website, it is known that the vehicle was on a divided highway with autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the road, perpendicular to the Model S. The driver nor the autopilot registered the white side of the tractor against the brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. These unfortunate circumstances caused the vehicle to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield. 

This is the first recorded incident in just over 130 million miles where autopilot was activated. Tesla states that when using its autopilot feature, ‘it is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times’. The system makes frequent checks to ensure the drivers hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if the hands are not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until the hands-on is detected. 

The end of Tesla’s statement reads “the customer who died in this crash had a lovely 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”

It is indeed a sad and tragic loss and one that will no doubt create uncertainty and doubt within the EV, autonomous community. 

The sad news that the driver of a Tesla car has been killed while it was in autopilot mode should not stop the advancement of driverless cars on our roads according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

Sahar Danesh, IET Principal Policy Advisor for Transport, said: “This appears to be a tragic accident but it should not discourage the advancement of driverless cars on our roads.

“Autonomous driving until now has had a strong safety record. One of the advantages autonomous vehicles have over traditional vehicles is that they record everything that goes on around them in detail, so those investigating what happened in the case of the self-driven Tesla will have a lot of information that they can use to improve the future safety of autonomous transport – so that these kinds of accidents can be avoided in the future.

“It is important to remember that driverless vehicles have huge potential to transform the UK’s transport network. In the long term, autonomous cars could improve road safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions.

“There are a series of trials taking place around the world where driverless cars have covered millions of miles without major incident. What we learn from this will prove crucial in ensuring the improved safety and technology of driverless cars.

“Public acceptance and trust are crucial, so these trials must get to grips with the best ways to win over everyone from car manufacturers to consumers to the benefits of driverless cars.

“However, we are unlikely to see fully autonomous vehicles in the very near future but what we will see is increased levels of automation, such as speed and lane control, rather than completely driverless cars. The increased technology in our vehicles will also have a very beneficial effect for older people, allowing them to stay mobile for longer.”

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