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Thursday, 04 August 2016 10:29

Regulators Open Investigation Into Fatal Crash in Tesla on Autopilot

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U.S. regulators are investigating
a fatal accident involving a
Tesla Motors Inc. sedan that was
driving on autopilot, drawing
scrutiny to a key technology the
electric-vehicle maker is betting on
for the future of self-driving cars.
The crash involved a 40-year-old
Ohio man who was killed when his
2015 Model S drove under the
trailer of an 18-wheeler on a highway
near Williston, Florida, according
to a Florida Highway
Patrol statement. Shares in the automaker
rose 0.3 percent to
$212.95. at 10:38 a.m. New York
The details of the accident
are likely to add fuel to the debate
over whether self-driving cars are
ready for the real world. Autopilot
didn’t notice the white side of the
tractor trailer against a brightly lit
sky, so the brake wasn’t applied,
said Tesla, which reported the May
7 incident to National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration. In a
blog post, Tesla said that the fatal
crash is the first known fatality in
more than 130 million miles of Autopilot
If the Autopilot system didn’t
recognize the tractor trailer,
then Tesla will have to recall the
cars to fix the flaw, said Clarence
Ditlow, executive director of the
Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy
group in Washington. Ditlow
said that Tesla’s Autopilot system
needs to be able to recognize all
possible road conditions.
“That’s a clear-cut defect
and there should be a recall,” Ditlow
said in a phone interview.
“When you put Autopilot in a vehicle,
you’re telling people to trust
the system even if there is lawyerly
warning to keep your hands on the
Tesla said in the post on
Thursday that it requires specific
knowledge from the vehicle owner
that Autopilot “is new technology
and still in public beta phase” before
it will enable the system. No
other automaker sells unproven
technology to customers, said Eric
Noble, president of CarLab Inc., a
consulting firm in Orange, California.
“There’s not an experienced
automaker out there who will let
this kind of technology on the road
in the hands of consumers without
further testing,” Noble said in a
phone interview. “They will test it
over millions of miles with trained
drivers, not with consumers.”
Mobileye NV, a supplier of cameras
and technology to Tesla for the
Model S, said its system is designed
to brake automatically to
avoid rear-end collisions but won’t
be able to brake for laterally crossing
vehicles until 2018.
Rocky Year
Tesla, on a mission to fulfill
Chief Executive Officer Elon
Musk’s revolution in sustainable
transportation, has had a rocky
year. Shares fell 40 percent by Feb.
10 on concerns about production of
the Model X sport utility vehicle,
then rose 85 percent in the next
two months on enthusiasm over the
smaller Model 3 sedan, which generated
373,000 reservations accompanied
by $1,000 deposits.
Just in the last month,
NHTSA asked the youngest and
smallest publicly traded U.S. automaker
for information about its
suspension systems following a report
by the Daily Kanban blog. The
government characterized the inquiry
as a routine data collection,
and Tesla insisted there’s no safety
defect. The company did, however,
revise its so-called Goodwill
Agreements to make it clear that
customers are free to report safety
concerns to regulators.
Then Tesla shares fell more
than 10 percent on June 22 the day
after announcing a proposal to acquire
SolarCity Corp., the rooftop
solar company that also counts
Musk as its chairman and largest
shareholder. The stock declined a
total of 12 percent this year
through Thursday.
Safety Record
Tesla has always prided itself
on its safety record. In August
2013, the Model S sedan was
awarded a 5-star safety rating by
the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration. The company’s
website states that “Model S
comes with Autopilot capabilities
designed to make your highway
driving not only safer, but stress
“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,” Tesla said in the post.
“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.”
News of the investigation
comes as the world’s
automakers are making increasing
forays into self-driving
features, technology that
is built on the promise of saving
In its statement,
NHTSA said it sent a special
crash investigation team to the
scene, a step the agency reserves
for accidents that represent
emerging areas of interest. The
safety agency said it will examine
the design and performance of the
automated driving systems in use
at the time of the crash.
NHTSA emphasized in its
statement that its preliminary evaluation
of the incident doesn’t indicate
any conclusion about whether
the Tesla vehicle was defective.
‘Beyond Saddened’
Tesla said that 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
The victim,
Joshua Brown, had posted
videos on YouTube demonstrating
the ability of Autopilot to avoid accidents.
An online obituary said he
was a former Navy SEAL.
Tesla began rolling out its
Autopilot features in October.
Autopilot is a step toward
autonomous or
self-driving cars, and includes
features like automatic lane changing,
auto steering and the ability of
the vehicle to parallel park itself. In
release notes about the software
updates that are sent to owners,
Tesla stresses that drivers still
maintain responsibility for safe
driving and should keep their
hands on the wheel at all times.
“Similar to the autopilot
functions in airplanes, you need to
maintain control and responsibility
of your vehicle while enjoying the
convenience of Autopilot in Model
S,” Tesla has said.
Self-driving and semi-autonomous
cars have a good track
record so far, but they aren’t perfect.
In February, a Lexus-model
Google self-driving car hit the
side of a bus near the company’s
Silicon Valley headquarters.
The vehicle was in
autonomous mode going
about 2 miles per hour
around sandbags in the
road. Google’s software
detected the bus but predicted
that it would yield,
which it did not, according
to a company report
about the incident.
There were no injuries
reported at the
scene, the company
noted. “In this case, we clearly
bear some responsibility, because if
our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t
have been a collision,” Google
said in its report.

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