In May 2016, Joshua Brown, 40, was killed in a fatal crash when his Tesla Model S, in autopilot mode, collided with a truck in Florida. This recent and terrible news has reignited the debate over autonomous vehicle safety and the application of autopilot technology in vehicles not limited to the ones currently employing it.
The Model S utilises a unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to autonomously steer the vehicle, change lanes and adjust speed in response to traffic on highways. Not only that, but it has the ability to park on command when you reach the destination. The incredible software powering the Model S is designed to increase the driver’s confidence behind the wheel with features that can help to reduce the driver’s workload. This is where the perception of the system gets misconstrued with many believing that drivers can disconnect from vehicle control, allowing them to take a nap, watch TV or read behind the wheel.
The U.S. government has received an overwhelming response from drivers, urging them to launch an investigation into autonomous vehicle accidents with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Their findings could impact the future of autopilot technology and its integration on the roads.
In a statement published by USA Today, John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota wrote “Research is needed on the interactions between the operator and vehicle at different levels of autonomy to ensure consumers are able to respond to the technology appropriately.” Thune added “In order to achieve the intended safety benefits of these technologies, manufacturers must educate customers not only about the benefits but also their limitations.“
Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors stands by the company’s decision to promote the feature and is confident that autopilot technology can do more good than bad. Recent announcements include collaborative efforts with Bosch and Mobileye to further improve how the autopilot feature uses the model’s radar sensors. Current Tesla drivers are coming together to support the company, saying that a single accident should not define the future of autopilot technology.
Whilst autonomous technology is still in its infancy, every step forward should be seen as progress towards Level 5 – autonomous vehicles designed with no option for human control. What might not have been considered is the continued and critical role that drivers play in the advancement of the technology. As John Thune said, we must educate drivers on more than just the benefits but also the limitations of vehicle autonomy.