Tesla’s self-driving system has come under fire after a fatal accident that occurred in Florida last May. Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, was killed when his Tesla S failed to apply the brakes after not spotting a white semi-trailer against the bright sky. The car went under the trailer as it was negotiating a turn, continued off the roadway and crashed through two fences before coming to stop against a utility pole. The truck driver said Brown appeared to be inattentive and did not have his hands on the wheel at the time of the accident.
The incident has sparked intense discussion in both the automotive and legal communities regarding the safety of self-driving systems. Tesla posted on its company blog that the self-driving feature is still in testing mode, and drivers should continue to hold the wheel when the system, called Autopilot, is engaged. It further stated Autopilot is only meant to assist, and drivers are still responsible for controlling their vehicles at all times.
Russ Rader, a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), said the unfortunate accident shows that drivers must remain alert and in control at all times, and it is clear self-driving cars have a long way to go in terms of safety. He added that the semi-trailer in question did not have under-ride guards on the sides. The guards are not required in the United States. A number of safety organizations are trying to change that as well as requiring more high-visibility tape and markings on trailers.
The Florida accident was the first major glitch that could be attributed directly to the sensors, cameras and software utilized by a self-driving system. Similar technology is being developed for commercial trucks, but it is a decade or more away due to the complicated and rigorous testing required.