Safety advocates are claiming Tesla’s reputation as a leading innovator in the automotive world could breed overconfidence in its new technology, putting drivers in danger.
The May 7 death of a Tesla driver whose vehicle collided with a tractor trailer while in “Autopilot” mode sparked renewed calls for proper vetting of advanced technology in production vehicles — especially if the technology allows the vehicle to drive itself.
Joshua Brown was killed on a Florida highway after his 2015 Tesla Model S’s Autopilot mistook a brightly-lit tractor trailer crossing the highway as the sky. The autonomous driving system didn’t react to the obstacle, leading to a fatal collision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is now investigating the Model S and its Autopilot system.
Following the crash, the truck’s driver, Frank Baressi, claimed the victim was watching a movie at the time of the crash, saying he could hear the film Harry Potter playing from the Tesla’s wreckage.
Tesla vehicles can’t play videos on their infotainment screens, but Reuters now reports that the Florida Highway Patrol found a portable, aftermarket DVD player in the wreckage of Brown’s vehicle. Brown was a great fan of Tesla and its Autopilot technology, uploading many dashcam videos to his YouTube page, including one showing the system avoiding a collision with a truck earlier this year.
Police said no video recording device — mounted to the dash or elsewhere — was found in the wreckage.
Tesla markets the Autopilot system as a driver’s aid, maintaining that drivers still need to be aware of their surroundings and ready to respond to danger while the system is activated. The mere presence of the technology, however, could lead to overconfidence in its abilities.
Speaking to Bloomberg, Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, criticized the practice of “beta” testing — having consumers test and help improve new technology through real-world use.
“Allowing automakers to do their own testing, with no specific guidelines, means consumers are going to be the guinea pigs in this experiment,” said Gillan. “This is going to happen again and again and again.”
Joan Claybrook, automotive safety advocate and former NHTSA director, said the “trial-and-error technique” is a threat to public safety.
“The history of the auto industry is they test and test and test,” she told Bloomberg. “This is a life-and-death issue.”
Expect the Florida crash to make other automakers extra cautious about perfecting their own autonomous driving technology (or semi-autonomous driving aids) before making it available in production vehicles. In March, NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind gave the regulator a six month timeline in which to create federal rules for self-driving cars.
[Image: Tesla Motors]