Tesla confirms first death with autopilot active, investigation begins

1 Jul 2016

Describing it as a “tragic loss”, Tesla has confirmed the first death to occur while one of its car was in autopilot mode, with an investigation to now look into how this could have happened.

Given the continued scrutiny on Tesla’s autopilot capabilities – which allows a driver to turn over the controls to the car on motorways – news that one of its customers has died while using it has ramped up questions about semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.

In a blog post from Tesla, the company confirmed that, on 7 May in Florida in the US, a 40-year-old man died after his Tesla Model S struck, at full speed, a tractor trailer that had been driving perpendicular to the highway.

Safety systems could not activate

Both the driver and Tesla’s software did not pick up on the oncoming trailer due to the “brightly lit sky” that obscured both human and machine, resulting in the car colliding with the trailer.

Additionally, the fate of the driver was compounded by the fact that the height of the trailer meant that first collision occurred with the Model S’s windscreen, which, Tesla claimed, prevented its safety systems from activating to potentially save the driver.

Customers warned of dangers

While Tesla claims that this is the first fatality after 200m km of driving using this technology – compared with the worldwide average of almost 100m km – the company has now stressed that drivers are required to opt-in to use autopilot and that they are warned that it is still in a “public beta phase”.

Under Tesla’s agreement with customers, drivers using autopilot mode have been required to keep their hands on the wheel at all times while activated, however, this has not stopped many from going so far as to hop into the back seat of the car while they have it activated.

Investigation gets underway

Following this tragedy, Tesla and its autopilot mode software will come under scrutiny from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which investigates any serious car crash in the US.

Issuing a statement on this incident, the NHTSA has said it will “examine the design and performance of the automated driving systems in use at the time of the crash”.

Tesla is not the only company testing autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles to come under scrutiny, Google’s autonomous vehicle was confirmed as being responsible for a traffic incident with a bus earlier this year, although, thankfully, no one was injured during that incident.

Tesla Model S image via Hadrian/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic