1st Tesla Autopilot Fatality … After 130 Million Miles (Updates)

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Update #1: The fatal accident occurred in Florida. It took the life of an Ohio man, who had actually previously been greatly helped by Autopilot in what was nearly an accident. He had published dozens of videos of Autopilot in action, and just seemed like one of those genuinely nice people who make your day a bit brighter. Our condolences to the family and friends.

Update #2: Unfortunately, many of the headlines on the major sites quickly covering this are making it seem like Tesla’s in trouble with the NHTSA because of this. Ugh. As the Tesla blog post makes clear, Tesla contacted the NHTSA. And the situation is just one of those where it seems the ending was inevitable…. Very sad. And yet again, condolences to the loved ones.

Update #3: Here is Joshua Brown’s obituary.

It is very sad to find out from Tesla Motors that the first Tesla Autopilot fatality has been logged. It comes after 130 million miles, and Tesla noted in its press release that a fatality occurs, on average, every 94 million miles in the United States, and every 60 million miles worldwide.

That puts Tesla Autopilot in a good light, but it doesn’t really lighten the mood for me in such a sad case.

It should be highlighted as well, however, that the fatality resulted from a tractor trailer crossing a divided highway and ramming into the Model S.

Bob Wallace, who just notified me of the news, adds some useful commentary:

This is an avoidable….

The important point is, IMO, once a problem like this appears, systems can be redesigned to deal with the gap and that problem should never again appear. Can’t do that with human drivers.

He also noted a point we should definitely keep in mind here: “the event frequency is so low that it would take a huge amount of driving to determine which is best. One per 130/94 million miles is not enough data to allow a meaningful statement.” And, obviously, this just looks like one of those unfortunate cases where the driver had essentially no hope anyway due to the other vehicle’s approach and specifics of the situation.

The full Tesla press release is below.

A Tragic Loss

We learned yesterday evening that NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles. It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.

Following our standard practice, Tesla informed NHTSA about the incident immediately after it occurred. What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. 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 high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. 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.

It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.

We do this to ensure that every time the feature is used, it is used as safely as possible. As more real-world miles accumulate and the software logic accounts for increasingly rare events, the probability of injury will keep decreasing. Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert. Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.

The customer who died in this crash had a loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss. He was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community, a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission. We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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