The death of a Tesla Model S driver in a crash which occurred while the car was in Autopilot mode should not discourage the use of autonomous driving technology on our roads, according to a transport expert from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
The performance of Tesla’s Autopilot function is being investigated by US car safety officials after a driver was killed in a crash while the autonomous system was deployed. The driver in Florida hit the side of a lorry trailer after neither he nor the self-driving system apparently noticed the vehicle pulling across the path of his 2015 Tesla Model S.
But 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.”
Having been informed about the crash by Tesla itself, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in America has opened a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.
Tesla said in a statement: “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.”
Autopilot uses ultrasonic sensors and a forward-facing camera to control the car. It is designed primarily for motorway use, where it can switch between lanes without any direct steering input from the driver and react to traffic flow.
It is believed that this is the first fatality caused when an autonomous driving function has been deployed.
Tesla emphasised that use of Autopilot required the driver to keep their hands on the wheel at all times. “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," the firm said.
“When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgement 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' and '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.
“We do this to ensure that every time the feature is used, it is used as safely as possible.”
The electric car company pointed out that “this is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles. As more real-world miles accumulate and the software logic accounts for increasingly rare events, the probability of injury will keep decreasing.”
Tesla paid tribute to the 40-year-old driver. “The customer who died in this crash had a loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss," it said. "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. We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.”