We’ve had the first recorded instance of a fatal car crash involving Tesla’s controversial Autopilot function.
The incident actually happened on May 7, but has only just been disclosed by Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors in a blog post.
It seems Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old man from Ohio, put his Tesla Model S into Autopilot mode whilst driving on a highway in Williston, Florida. However, the car’s systems failed to pick out an 18-wheel truck and trailer that was crossing the road, resulting in a full speed collision. It seems the trailer’s white side may have blended in against the bright sky.
According to a local police report, the Model S went under the trailer, and the top of the vehicle was torn off by the force of the collision.
Tesla speculates that “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.”
The company also reiterates that Autopilot is beta software, and is disabled by default. It requires explicit acknowledgement of this from the driver before it can be activated, as well as of Tesla’s requirement that the driver keeps their hands on the wheel and maintains responsibility for the car at all times.
Brown was a Tesla enthusiast who had previously posted footage of his Model S’s Autopilot feature avoiding a collision on YouTube. This video was shared by Elon Musk himself back in April.
As Tesla points out, this is “the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated”. This compares favourably with the record for regular vehicles in the US, where there is a fatality every 94 million miles.
However, the nature of the accident will doubtless be disturbing to Tesla owners.
The NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into Autopilot’s performance in the accident.