The first known fatality in a Tesla operated in autopilot mode just happened. The accident occurred in a Tesla Model S. Tesla’s blog post provides details:
…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.
A Question of Safety
According to Tesla, if the Model S crashed into the trailer’s front or rear, the Tesla vehicle’s advanced safety system would have kicked in, preventing serious injury.
Tesla also emphasized that autopilot, autonomous driving mode is disabled by default. Tesla owners are told that the technology is still new, not fully tested, and in public beta.
When operating a Tesla on autopilot, the company recommends that drivers “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it.
Additionally, 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.
Autonomous Vehicles and Ethics
This incident is sure to stoke debate surrounding the ethics and dangers of self-driving vehicles. First, it takes time for intelligent computers such as those behind self-driving cars, to learn patterns. This means that in these initial stages of this new tech, there will be those who are casualties of machine learning.
There are ethical issues as well. The consensus is that self-driving vehicles will reduce traffic fatalities. However, situations will arise where these vehicles will have to choose between two evils, such as running over pedestrians or sacrificing themselves and their passenger to save the pedestrians.