Tesla self-driving technology under microscope after fatal crash

2013 Tesla Model S

An investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been opened after it was revealed that the driver of a Tesla electric car was killed in a crash while the car was in “autopilot” mode. The accident took place in a Tesla Model S on May 7th in Williston, Florida, around 100 miles northwest of Orlando.

The NHTSA investigation is focused on the automated driving system’s design and performance. The Wall Street Journal noted that this “preliminary evaluation is an initial official probe by the agency and could later be elevated to a more significant engineering analysis if widespread, significant problems are found. It isn’t an official determination that a defect exists in the vehicle.” Tesla alerted regulators about the fatality.

In a statement on the Tesla website, the company noted that the ‘Autopilot’ feature still requires human driving skills, stating:

It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times," and that "you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also 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.

The statement also described the circumstances of the accident:

What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.

It is thought that this is the first death involving a self-driving car, and Tesla claims that over 130m miles have been driven using their ‘Autopilot’ technology. This incident shines the spotlight on Silicon Valley and its continued quest to perfect the technology. The NHTSA, according to The New York Times, is set to release testing guidelines and regulation for self-driving cars on public roads in July.

Doug Zanger

Doug Zanger is the Americas editor for The Drum. He leads the Americas editorial team’s content activity in the growing region. Based in Portland, Oregon, he is committed to sharing the most meaningful stories that benefit the global industry and its people. A Minnesota native, Zanger has covered a wide range of brands, issues and personalities, including Aloe Blacc, Seu Jorge, Wendy Clark, Susan Credle, Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby and more. Fiercely dedicated to diversity, equality and talent, he has interviewed several women in leadership roles through his Exceptional Women of the World podcast.

All by Doug