Tesla's self-driving system is under scrutiny after a Model S driver was killed in a crash, but a transport expert says autonomous tech is safe

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.”

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Join the debate


1 July 2016
As its taken a death for people to realise this autonomous tech is over hyped and dangerous and going no where. A totally autonomous car just is in the near future so can the magazines etc forget about it for 20 years please


Hydrogen cars just went POP

1 July 2016
xxxx wrote:

As its taken a death for people to realise this autonomous tech is over hyped and dangerous and going no where. A totally autonomous car just is in the near future so can the magazines etc forget about it for 20 years please

Forgetting about it is the most dangerous path we can take. We have to resist it with all our strength. Autonomous cars are another route towards controlling our freedom of movement. Imagine getting into the car, inputting your destination and being told "no, you are not authorized by the state to go there". Well that's the reason why autonomous cars are being created.

I don't need to put my name here, it's on the left


1 July 2016
It was reported elsewhere that a witness says he was watching a movie in the car when it happened. This could have been on an ipad laid on top of the screen or it could have been on the on-board screen. Tesla say its impossible to do so but as long as I remember there being screens in cars, there have been hacks on the internet to allow movies whilst in motion. If this were the case obviously Tesla are not going to acknowledge this.

1 July 2016
The details on this are not yet clear but I hope it doesn't slow down development. 98% of all accidents are driver error of some type, not technical failure, so the long term benefits could be awesome (autonomous car to get me to work, my superbike for fun!)




1 July 2016
Deputy wrote:

The details on this are not yet clear but I hope it doesn't slow down development. 98% of all accidents are driver error of some type, not technical failure, so the long term benefits could be awesome (autonomous car to get me to work, my superbike for fun!)

Do you seriously think that if they get autonomous cars to a position of predominance you'd be allowed to use your superbike? Not a chance. Driving as we know it would be over, forbidden. That's why we have to fight against it. Every single one of us who loves driving has got everything to lose and nothing to gain from autonomous cars.

I don't need to put my name here, it's on the left


1 July 2016
And given the way news tell about what happened, it appears to me that the driver is unlikely to have survived -- if he had been driving and 100% focused. As what happened was that, a trailer went sideways across the road directly in front of him - fully closing the road ahead as the car arrived at speed, and the car went partially under the trailer, the trailer impacting the windscreen in direct fashion -- there were no signs of braking. Neither the driver nor the autopilot seemingly reacted. When I say that the autopilot probably wasn't at fault, I'm implying that it probably worked 100% - that there was no fault in it's working. Perhaps cars that are going to be - auto-piloted, need more powerful radars looking ahead, so they can react to situations developing further ahead. That may be the lesson from this incident.

1 July 2016
Tesla state that the system didn't resolve a White vehicle side against a light skyline so didn't react. If the driver were driving (or at least paying attention) he would have seen the trailer and reacted, just as we all do every day (if it were impossible for a human to resolve a White vehicle we would have had to ban them long ago!) - this is the problem with vision based systems, ironically cars with less sophisticated systems like adaptive cruise controls have radar or laser obstacle detection that would have braked in this situation even if the truck were painted in camouflage!

1 July 2016
There is no camera on the market today that has a better dynamic range than that of the human eye. This is perhaps where the deficiency lies in the cars system. Aside from that people can make judgements that are intuitive and hard to quantify or measure. Which is why I will never be trusting my life or that of my family entirely on the ability of a computer. Another good argument against these fully automatic systems is that you can never have any privacy while your car constantly measures its position relative to its surroundings and reports back telemetry, if these systems take off you can bet your last pound the security services will be abusing this technology in the same way they have with e-mails and phone hacking.

 Offence can only be taken not given- so give it back!

1 July 2016
Makes you wonder why the Model S's forward facing radar sensor didn't notice a whopping great 18 wheeler right in front of it irrespective of colour.

Seems likely that the radar went underneath the trailer? Either way, the cameras, ultrasound sensors and radar fitted to the car clearly leaves gaps that aren't robust...

Hence why you have to pay attention!!

1 July 2016
Unless the car was speeding, surely in this incident the fault lies with the truck driver for pulling out in front of the car in the first place.


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