Tesla Autopilot Death Stirs Up Controversy on Autonomous Cars

image credit: Ben_Kerckx via

image credit: Ben_Kerckx via

Self-driving cars have always fascinated the imaginations of tech futurists. Imagine a world where essentially, every person is a passenger and cars drive on their own. Two huge tech companies have taken on the task of exploring this possibility, and Google and Tesla Motors are the most pronounced in pursuing this kind of project.

However, this future-forward idea hit a terrible snag when an accident happened on May 7, 2016 in Florida where Tesla’s autopilot feature allegedly caused the death of the driver Joshua Brown. Brown, aged 40, died after his Tesla Model S sedan collided with a truck and skidded right under the trailer. The car was in autopilot mode when it happened and strangely, it did not slow down after collision and continued to veer off the road until it crashed onto an electric pole according to news reports.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigated the incident and set an inquiry on the said case considering that this was the first reported fatality in relation to Tesla’s Autopilot technology.

image credit: screenshot from

image credit: screenshot from

Still in beta phase

This case was confirmed and released by Tesla through their corporate blog and quoted, “It was the first fatality in over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated.” It further stated that in the United States, one fatality happens for every 94 million miles, and on a global scale, one fatality happens for every 60 million miles.

The autopilot technology of Tesla was still in beta phase and the company noted that car owners were aware of this. They actually had the option to include autopilot in their car by paying an additional US$2,500. Tesla Motors was quick to clarify that the autopilot feature was not “totally autonomous and required the driver to have his/her hands on the wheel all the time.” Upon activation of autopilot, the car reminded the driver to “always keep your hands on the wheel. Be ready to take over at any time.” As a safety mechanism, the car slows down when the driver’s hands are not the steering wheel.

The Tesla Model S, which carried the autopilot feature, is the product headliner of the company. Aside from that fact that all of their vehicles are purely powered by electricity, it also carried a slew of features that incorporated modern technological innovations. Some of them include:

  • Adaptive lighting which improves visibility at night by letting headlights pan left or right especially when turning on blind curves
  • An indoor air filter system that protects passengers from 99.97 percent of exhaust pollution, bacteria, and viruses

The autopilot feature, to which car owners found it to be impressive, allowed the car to steer itself within a lane, change lanes, stop and go during traffic, and even park itself in tight spaces.

image credit: unsplash via

image credit: unsplash via

To steer or not to steer?

In the motoring world, it is still a debate whether self-driving or autonomous cars are safer than human-driven cars. Some researches have revealed that 94 percent of car accidents are caused by human error; but it is still inconclusive if self-driven cars would prove to be a safer alternative. This is because there isn’t much data yet to prove or disprove the hypothesis that self-driven cars are safer. In a research done by the RAND Corporation, a key finding stated that “autonomous vehicles would have to be driven hundreds of millions of miles and sometimes hundreds of billions of miles to demonstrate their reliability in terms of fatalities and injuries.”

Reports of Brown’s death however have fanned the flames on autopilot not being safe for car drivers. Members of the Tesla drivers community however, are quick to douse the issue by claiming that the media has sensationalized Brown’s unfortunate case. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk himself was countering media reports on his Twitter page.

Another case involving a Tesla autopilot accident happened in Pennsylvania after Brown’s death but authorities clarified that autopilot was not on when the it happened. Musk iterated that the accident could have been averted if autopilot was turned on.
Despite the ongoing debates on autopilot, car manufacturers and service providers are already considering or developing their own autopilot technology. It is unfortunate though, that some drivers have already been abusing the technology, including Tesla car owners by totally ignoring road safety rules. The US Government plans to release federal guidelines for autonomous cars in the wake of Brown’s accident.