Automakers urge drivers to remain alert in self-driving mode

Joshua Brown was killed in Florida last May in an accident involving his Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode – the first known self-driving car death. Federal investigators launched a formal investigation into the incident in July. Questions arise whether the accident could have been prevented by the car or Brown himself.

How did the accident happen?

A semi truck was at a stoplight, making a legal left-hand turn. The Tesla in Autopilot mode approached from behind, but its breaking system never engaged. Tesla says that the sensors didn’t see the semi in front of it, because it blended in with the overcast sky, nor did Brown.

Brown was a self-professed tech enthusiast and lover of all things Tesla. He had posted many YouTube videos showing off the innovative features of the car, including Autopilot. Tesla creator Elon Musk even tweeted one of his videos showing how Autopilot helped Brown’s car avoid a collision with a truck.

Be alert even in autopilot

Some of his videos demonstrating Autopilot to the audience showed Brown using the feature, months after beginning to learn how to use it, with his hands on his knees. However, he pointed out his hands were on his knees because they could easily be put back on the wheel – just in case.

In a June 30 statement, Tesla stated that Autopilot is automatically turned off in all cars, and the driver needs to activate it after receiving messages about the technology still being in beta. Although the Model S is not a fully automated car, it does use cameras, sensors, software and radar to get the car around in Autopilot, completing tasks like merging into traffic.

In their statement, Tesla didn’t indicate whether or not Brown was “engaged” with the car or not, but all drivers are cautioned while using Autopilot that they must have their hands on the wheel. The company says the feature is not meant to be used hands-free.

Implications of new driverless technology

The accident is just the first with self-driving technology in 130 million miles – but Tesla found it worth noting that regular cars average a death every 94 million miles in the United States.

It still hasn’t been determined whether Brown or the car’s technology is at fault; sadly, a man is dead either way. But some are looking to test and study driverless technology more so that accidents like Brown’s can be avoided. It raises the question of whether Tesla and other automakers should be on the hook for the accident, or whether it’s the drivers themselves who caused it. This is also a conundrum for auto insurance companies and the victim’s surviving family members if they would want to file a lawsuit against the automaker.

Until the final investigation ends, and maybe even afterward, we won’t know.