The U.S. announced Thursday the first fatality in a wreck involving a car in self-driving mode. The government said it is investigating the design and performance of the system aboard the Tesla Model S sedan.
The Canton, Ohio man died in the accident May 7 in Williston, Florida, when his car’s cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky and didn’t automatically activate its brakes, according to government records.
The 62-year-old driver of the truck, said the Tesla driver was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” at the time of the crash and driving so quickly that “he went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him.”
“It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road,” the man told The Associated Press. He acknowledged he couldn’t see the movie, only heard it.
Tesla Motors Inc. said it is not possible to watch videos on the Model S touch screen. There was no reference to the movie in initial police reports.
Tesla stressed the uncertainty about its new system, noting that drivers must manually enable it: “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”
The company said this was the first known death in over 130 million miles of Autopilot operation. It said the NHTSA investigation is a preliminary inquiry to determine whether the system worked as expected.
Tesla says that before Autopilot can be used, drivers have to acknowledge that the system is an “assist feature” that requires a driver to keep both hands on the wheel at all times. Drivers are told they need to “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using the system, and they have to be prepared to take over at any time, the statement said.
Autopilot makes frequent checks, making sure the driver’s hands are on the wheel, and it gives visual and audible alerts if hands aren’t detected, and it gradually slows the car until a driver responds, the statement said.
The Autopilot mode allows the Model S sedan and Model X SUV to steer itself within a lane, change lanes and speed up or slow down based on surrounding traffic or the driver’s set speed. It can automatically apply brakes and slow the vehicle. It can also scan for parking spaces and parallel park on command.
As new technology comes on the market for the public to use, the legal field must adapt to these changes. Many car manufacturers, not just Tesla, are working on automated systems that can warn drivers about collisions, recognize the rules of the road, and even take over the steering and braking systems.The goal is this: to keep drivers and passengers safe by automating the processes that they are not quick enough to catch. However, this theory can be flawed as there are hundreds of millions of cars on the road every day, so automakers will always struggle to keep up with software malfunctions, user errors, and any other issues.