Tesla 'Autopilot' Crash Victim Identified as Ex-Navy SEAL; Trucker Claims Victim Was Watching a Movie

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Details emerging from the May 7 crash involving a Tesla Model S driving in Autopilot mode paint a confusing picture.

Yesterday, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration opened a preliminary investigation into the crash and the vehicle’s technology, prompting Tesla to defend itself and admit that the vehicle’s autonomous driving system didn’t recognize a tractor trailer crossing the lanes in front of the Model S.

The victim, identified as ex-Navy SEAL Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, died after his 2015 Model S collided with the truck at an intersection in Williston, Florida. The Tesla’s Autopilot failed to slow the vehicle, causing the car to ride under the truck’s trailer at highway speed, shearing the roof off.

The driver of the truck was identified as Frank Baressi, 62, owner of Okemah Express LLC. The company is comprised of a single truck and trailer.

A note in that day’s Levy County Journal describes the circumstances of the crash using information provided by the Florida Highway Patrol.

The FHP said the tractor-trailer was traveling west on US 27A in the left turn lane toward 140th Court. Brown’s car was headed east in the outside lane of U.S. 27A.

When the truck made a left turn onto NE 140th Court in front of the car, the car’s roof struck the underside of the trailer as it passed under the trailer. The car continued to travel east on U.S. 27A until it left the roadway on the south shoulder and struck a fence. The car smashed through two fences and struck a power pole. The car rotated counter-clockwise while sliding to its final resting place about 100 feet south of the highway. Brown died at the scene.

Charges are pending.

In its response, Tesla claimed, “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 automaker claimed this is the first fatality to occur involving a Tesla vehicle driven in Autopilot mode. It’s also being touted in the media as the first death of an occupant of a driverless vehicle.

Bizarrely, Brown — a Tesla enthusiast who nicknamed his vehicle “Tessy” — posted a video in April that showed his vehicle’s Autopilot avoiding a collision with a truck. The video shows the Model S swerving to prevent contact with a boom lift truck that unexpectedly moved into Brown’s highway lane. In that incident, the vehicle’s emergency warning chime sounded, alerting the driver to the danger and compelling him to take control, and the automatic steering responded to the lane intrusion.

Following the fatal crash, the truck’s driver claimed the victim had been watching a movie on the Tesla’s media screen at the time of impact.

Baressi told the Associated Press that Brown was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen,” adding, “It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road.”

The driver claims that he heard the movie playing, but didn’t actually see it on the vehicle’s screen. Tesla claims the vehicle’s touchscreen isn’t capable of playing videos.

In his comments, Baressi implied that Brown was speeding, claiming the Tesla “went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him.” The speed limit on that stretch of highway is 65 miles per hour.

A check of Baressi’s driving history shows that the Palm Harbor, Florida owner/operator has been cited several times in the past year-and-a-half for failure to comply with maintenance standards, Hours of Service (HOS) regulations, and traffic laws.

His record shows two unsafe driving violations — a failure to obey a traffic control device in Virginia in March, and an improper lane change in Connecticut in January 2015. Two vehicle maintenance violations were issued in Maryland in May 2015 (for unsafe tire depth and an inoperable lamp), and three HOS violations were recorded in Virginia in January of this year. Those violations included driving beyond a 14-hour duty period and having a record of duty status that wasn’t current.

The crash occurred at 3:40 p.m. on May 7, so the sun would have been hitting the side of the trailer facing Brown’s eastbound vehicle. Weather reports from the area show sunny skies and temperatures in the low to mid 80s. Brown’s car crested a slight rise as it approached the unsignalized intersection, so it’s possible that rising heat from the roadway and glare obscured his vehicle from the truck’s position when the decision was made to turn.

Regardless of whether the truck driver was at fault, the failure of the Autopilot to detect and respond to the danger is a huge blow to the automaker and the reputation of its safety-minded technology. Earlier this week, a video emerged that showed a Tesla Model S recognizing a pedestrian in front of the vehicle but repeatedly failing to brake while driving in Autopilot mode.

[ Associated Press, Levy County Journal, Electrek]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • VoGo VoGo on Jul 03, 2016

    I will just point out that normal people would say things like "What a pity this ex-Navy Seal died" or "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

  • Onyxtape Onyxtape on Jul 03, 2016

    At my last job, my work vanpool's primary driver lived 3 houses away from me. I roll out of bed, roll into the van, and sleep or do recreational reading all the way to work. And it's glorious. That's as close to simulating real-life autopilot as you can get in the previous decade. So I'm totally onboard once they get the kinks out.

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