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Tesla Autopilot Fatality — Timeline & Facts

Editor’s Note: I bolded some particularly important lines that I think US regulators should act on.

This week saw the sad reporting of the first fatality while Tesla’s Autopilot was engaged. There is a lot of speculation and opinion being touted. It’s worth spelling out the timeline and facts.

May 7, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 7.44.01 AMA Tesla Model S was being driven by Joshua Brown. He was headed east in the outside lane of US 27A near Williston, Florida. The Tesla was operating under Autopilot, with steering, braking, and acceleration under control of the vehicle and with the front-collision detection system and related braking and avoidance activated. There is no indication in the official reports that the Tesla was driving at unusual speeds at the time of the collision, and Autopilot is limited to five miles over the speed limit with recent updates. Joshua Brown was 40 when the collision occurred per his obituary, but his age was reported as 45 in some reports.

An 18-wheel tractor-trailer was traveling west on US 27A in the left turn lane toward 140th Court. The truck was driven by Frank Baressi, 62, of Tampa. The tractor-trailer appears to have been a standard US 18-wheeler. It was not equipped with side under-ride guards as is standard in other parts of the world, but did have a rear under-ride guard as is standard almost everywhere. The truck was white.

The day was clear and sunny.

tesla-crash-police-report-diagram-superJumbo.jpg.650x0_q70_crop-smartThe truck made a left turn onto NE 140th Court in front of the car.

The car did not treat the tractor-trailer as a threat or obstacle to be avoided. Tesla indicated in subsequent remarks that the high and wide side of the truck was interpreted by the system as an overhead sign.

Joshua Brown did not see the truck either. A portable DVD player was found in the Tesla. The truck driver has stated that it was operating when he reached the Tesla and playing a Harry Potter movie, but he only heard it (didn’t see it). Neither the car’s automation or Joshua Brown applied the brakes or performed any evasive maneuvers.

The car collided with the trailer of the 18-wheeler. The car’s roof struck the underside of the trailer as it passed under the trailer. The car’s roof was sheered off.

The lack of side under-ride guards on trucks in the USA is associated with 250 traffic fatalities annually, ignoring pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in urban areas. It is standard in Europe, and testing has found it is a benefit from a fuel consumption perspective and reduces turbulence from trucks on other road users. Side under-ride guards would almost certainly have prevented the fatal outcome.

The car passed under the trailer and continued traveling. It went off the road to the south, hit two fence sections, and hit a power pole before coming to a stop. Joshua Brown was apparently killed instantly when the car’s roof was sheered off. The truck driver, Frank Baressi, was uninjured.

It is clear that the tractor-trailer driver turned unsafely in front of oncoming traffic that was proceeding at safe and expected speeds for this road, and should be considered the primary responsible actor in this collision.

May 8, 2016

The day after the event, Tesla provided full details from their logs to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This is normal operating procedure for Tesla and they did it voluntarily. They are transparent with Autopilot data with the NHTSA as a matter of policy.

June 29, 2016

On Wednesday evening, Tesla learned that the NHTSA would be performing a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot related to the crash.

June 30, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 11.45.18 AMOn Thursday, Tesla posted its statement on its blog and referenced it in its Twitter feed.

Tesla asserts that a fatal collision occurs with every 94 million miles driven by vehicles in the USA and every 60 million miles in the rest of the world. It asserts that Teslas had driven 130 million miles under Autopilot control at the time of the collision. Note that this is not a statistically valid argument, but merely an indicator at this point. Another fatal collision tomorrow would reverse the argument they are suggesting. Until the sample size reaches a statistically valid number, it is not evidence that an argument can be based on.

July 1, 2016

Mobileye, the Israeli tech company which provides key components of Tesla’s system, but is only part of the overall Autopilot solution, stated that its system does not detect side collisions at this point but that is a feature that it will add in the future. Tesla responded in comments on this as it has in the past that Mobileye is not the entirety of Tesla’s solution, and that there are additional sensors and logic running.


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Written By

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc, co-founder of distnc technologies, and Strategic Advisor and Board Observer for Agora Energy Technologies. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. His published analyses of low-carbon technology and policy have been seen in Forbes, Quartz and the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation site. His work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. He's available for consulting and speaking engagements, and Board positions.


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