The driver of an electric Tesla car has been killed in a fatal crash that occurred while the vehicle was in autopilot mode.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the US has begun investigations into the incident, which marks the first death of a driver in a 'self-driving' car.
The crash occurred on 7 May in Florida, when the Tesla Model S was driving on a divided highway (very similar to a UK dual carriageway) with its autopilot engaged. The system is designed with numerous safety features, from ensuring a driver isn't drifting out of their lane on a motorway to employing brakes if a crash is anticipated. The driver, named as Joshua Brown by several US media outlets, was killed when both he and the autopilot system failed to act when a tractor with trailer pulled across both lanes of the highway.
Tesla's blog reports that, "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."
Brown, a retired Navy SEAL, had previously posted a number of YouTube videos demonstrating the autopilot function at work - one of which had even been retweeted by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The following video from Brown demonstrates how the autopilot can help prevent a collision:
Tesla extended its condolences to Browns family, writing: "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."
The autopilot feature of Tesla doesn't give the car true self-driving autonomy: the system is still in Beta testing, and Tesla insists that drivers must keep both hands on the wheel when the autopilot is engaged. The system will even slow the car down if it detects the driver has taken its hands off the wheel.
Tesla claims that this is the first fatality in 130 million miles of driving scenarios that saw autopilot activated. It's an incredible piece of technology, but self-driving cars still have a long way to go before they take over from humans.