Tesla has confirmed the first-ever fatal accident involving an autonomous or “self-driving “ car occurred in May when a Tesla Model S operating in autopilot crashed into the side of a tractor trailer in Florida.
Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, died when his autonomous Tesla car failed to apply its brakes as a tractor trailer turned left in front of it. The May 7 crash occurred on a divided highway in Williston, Fla.
Tesla is one of several automakers and technology companies that have been testing “driverless” cars, which at this point can operate in autopilot mode with a co-driver who can assume control of the vehicle. It is not clear if Mr. Brown, a former Navy SEAL, had taken any evasive action to prevent the crash.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is working with car companies to develop the regulatory and legal framework for autonomous vehicles, said it is investigating the crash.
Tesla said that lighting appears to have posed a problem for the Model S. Blaring sun may have illuminated the tractor trailer, causing both Mr. Brown and the Model S autopilot system to fail to notice it in time.
Tesla’s autopilot technology is currently the most developed among automakers, and its Model S is one of the first vehicles available to the general public that can assist with driving for limited distances.
Tesla says that the accident occurred under “extremely rare circumstances” and emphasized that mile per mile, the fatality rate for autonomous vehicles is still better than the U.S. average and less than half the worldwide average. According to Tesla, auto-piloted cars have driven 130 million miles collectively before the first fatality, Mr. Brown’s. In the U.S., the rate is one death per 94 million miles. Worldwide, it’s one per 60 million miles.
“Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” the company said on its blog. “Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.”