SAFETY: First Traffic Death In A Self-Driving Vehicle

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What seems to be the first death in the use of autonomous vehicle features has befallen the driver of a Tesla Model S.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched a probe into an unfortunate incident involving a Tesla and a tractor trailer. Autopilot was engaged, but it didn’t see the truck.

Tesla’s release, entitled “A Tragic Loss”, lays it out:

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.

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.

Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.

Tesla counters the panic that might ensue with this dark milestone with reassuring statistics:

This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated.

Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles.

And then there’s the reminder that Autopilot does not make your Tesla a hands-off car:

Every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.”

The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.

Tesla alerted NHTSA to the accident, and it’s a simple investigation at this point. But that footfall you hear is all of us stepping into a world where a car running on autonomy has ended up in a fatal accident.

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