Originally published on Gas2.
Last May, former Navy SEAL Joshua Brown was killed when his Model S slammed broadside into a tractor trailer while operating in Tesla Autopilot mode. The fatality sent shockwaves throughout the automotive world. Since it was the first known fatality involving self driving technology, it called into question whether such systems were safe.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration opened an investigation and called upon Tesla to supply it with details about how the Tesla Autopilot system worked. The media caught wind of this and began to spin it into a whirlwind of misinformation, speculation, and fear.
Shortly after the crash, Tesla and MobilEye — the Israeli company that helped Tesla develop the Autopilot system and supplied the camera used by it — had a parting of the ways. Some months later, German officials labeled Tesla Autopilot “a considerable traffic hazard” and called for it to be banned.
This week, NHTSA closed its investigation into the crash that killed Joshua Brown, saying its staff “did not identify any defects.” In response, the company issued a brief statement. “At Tesla, the safety of our customers comes first, and we appreciate the thoroughness of NHTSA’s report and its conclusion.”
Among other findings, the report made several references to the Tesla Automatic Enhanced Braking system, saying it can reduce rear end collisions by 40%. If such systems were required throughout the industry, the agency believes 28,000 crashes a year could be avoided leading to 12,000 fewer traffic injuries in the United States. Elon Musk was quick to tweet the good news.
Report highlight: “The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.”
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 19, 2017
Elon has been one of the most active proponents for self driving systems, claiming they can largely eliminate highway fatalities once in general use. As tragic as the Joshua Brown fatality was, it spurred Musk and Tesla engineers on to even greater technological feats.
The company totally redesigned the Autopilot software subsequent to Brown’s death, de-emphasizing the importance of the forward facing camera and putting more reliance on forward looking radar that can actually “see” under and around the car ahead to detect dangerous situations before the driver is even aware of them.
Tesla should get credit for the aesthetics of its self driving hardware, too. Every other company uses blisters and bubbles mounted to roofs, hoods, or side view mirrors to enclose their hardware. The sensors for the Tesla Autopilot are fully integrated into the exterior of the car and cause no unsightly blemishes at all. A small thing, perhaps, but an important one. Nobody wants to be seen driving something that looks like a clown car that escaped from the circus.
One last thing. The second generation hardware package Tesla has developed contains all the pieces necessary for fully autonomous cars capable of driving from coast to coast without human input. All it will take is a software update, which will be ready just as soon as regulatory approval is obtained.
Now that NHTSA has absolved Autopilot from any blame for the Joshua Brown tragedy and heaped praise on self driving technology for its ability to cut down on injuries and deaths from highway accidents, it seems that approval is one step closer to becoming a reality.
Reprinted with permission.