Tesla Faces Backlash Over Autopilot Technology in Wake of Crash

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
We’re committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using links in our articles. Learn more here
tesla faces backlash over autopilot technology in wake of crash

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]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

More by Steph Willems

Join the conversation
3 of 164 comments
  • NMGOM NMGOM on Jul 04, 2016

    Coming here late: Looks like everyone has thoroughly commented on this "backlash" issue. Already gave some perspectives on this technology in the first Tesla post: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2016/06/nhtsa-investigating-tesla-model-s-following-fatal-autopilot-crash/ Please check these experiments, data, analysis we had done in the late 1990's in the link above. Just some emphasis: 1) There is no such thing now as a completely autonomous vehicle, and will not be reliably available earlier than perhaps 2025-2030. It is foolish to pretend otherwise. 2) One real test of what defined an "autonomous vehicle" in 2004 is recapped here: "The ultimate success of AI-based vehicle systems was judged to be SLEEP! If you can take a nap and/or have NO ability or desire to intervene, — EVER — then the AI system would be seen as successful as your being a passenger with a competent spouse (or others) doing the driving." 3) A real autonomous vehicle will have to handle a white-out snowstorm with pavement substrate coated with ice. (Not simple, but yes, I drive successfully, albeit awkwardly, in this stuff routinely in January and February in WI.) 4) Toyota and some others are to be praised for going slow and thorough with testing this technology. In fact, BMW had this to say: "On this very topic, BMW (CEO Harald Krueger) just announced BMW will be the “#1 in autonomous driving” — but in 2021 and beyond. His comment was that current technology is just not ready for “serious production”. And: “we need those next years”. http://www.autonews.com/article/20160701/VIDEO/307019998/autonews-now-fca-ford-nissan-gain-in-june-toyota-gm-slip?cciid=email-autonews-anno" 5) Tesla's use of the triumphalist term, "Autopilot" may have been unfortunate. Psychologically, to me at least, it implies more capability than actually exists, and others may feel greater confidence in the current Tesla system than is wise. As some have pointed out, a more restrained, less absolute, perhaps less bravado-filled term may have been better. 6) Heuristic computer systems, taught to anticipate future events in difficult traffic/road situations, --- coupled with five (5) types of "surround sensing" and GPS road-location capability --- will be essential for approaching AND exceeding "proper" human accident-avoidance capability, but it can eventually be done. Will that be inexpensive and add just a mere $5,000 to the price of a vehicle? Probably not. ====================

  • Shortest Circuit Shortest Circuit on Jul 06, 2016

    I can only say what people smarter that me said half a decade ago: this _will_not_work_, semi-autonomous driving doesn't work when it is immersed in a sea of regular cars. We either make the switch completely (outlaw all cars that are not autonomous) or stop offering potentially dangerous technology. Where is Ralph Nader when you need him? And yes, I am referring to Isaac Asimov's Sally (1954)

    • Vulpine Vulpine on Jul 06, 2016

      While I agree with the author, the words and the sentiment, SC, there is only one way you could make that work: You would have to remove ALL non-autonomous cars from the road en-masse and issue auto-pilot-equipped cars to all drivers, again, en-masse. In some countries you might get away with that, but here in the US that would be fought every step of the way. People would hide their favorite non-autonomous car in the same way the last remaining EV-1 in private hands was hidden and the mere act of taking that car out on the road would have to be confiscated on sight--possibly at the risk of getting shot by the driver in some parts of the country. No, while it is a nice idea, the only way people will truly accept them is if such technology becomes mandated to where NO new vehicle can be sold without the technology on board and activated by default. Moreover, manual control will have to be gradually removed and ultimately limited to off-road purposes or destination maneuvering such as driveways and work sites.

  • Carsofchaos Bike lanes are in use what maybe 10 to 12 hours a day? The other periods of the day they aren't in use whatsoever. A bike can carry one person and a vehicle can carry multiple people. It's very simple math to figure out that a bike lane in no way shape or form will handle more people than cars will.The bigger issue is double parked delivery vehicles. They are often double parked and taking up lanes because there are cars parked on the curb. You combine that with a bike lane and pedestrians Crossing wherever they feel like it and it's a recipe for disaster. I think if we could just go back to two lanes of traffic things would flow much better. I started coming to the city in 2003 before a lot of these bike lanes were implemented and the traffic is definitely much worse now than it was back then. Sadly at this point I don't really think there is a solution but I can guarantee that congestion pricing will not fix this problem.
  • Charles When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.
  • Marky S. I own the same C.C. XSE Hybrid AWD as in this article, but in Barcelona Red with the black roof. I love my car for its size, packaging, and the fact that it offers both AWD and Hybrid technology together. Visibility is impressive, as is its small turning circle. I consider the C.C. more of a "station wagon" by proportion, rather than an “SUV.” It is fun to drive, with zippy response and perky pick-up. It is a pleasant car to drive and ride in. It is not trying to be a “Butch Off-Roader”, or a cosseting “Luxury Cruiser.” Those are not its goals or purpose. The Corolla Cross XSE Hybrid AWD is a wonderful All-Purpose Car (O.K. – “SUV” if you must hear me say it!) with a combination of all the features it has at a reasonable price.
  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.