Autopilot Mode Won’t Stop Every Accident

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating the first fatal accident involving a semi-autonomous vehicle. Last week,  a Tesla Model S collided with a tractor-trailer that had turned across an intersection on a divided highway.

At the time of the accident, the Model S was in “Autopilot Mode”—a semi-autonomous feature that allows the car to drive by a system of computers and sensors, yet requires drivers to maintain hand contact on the wheel and remain alert.

According to a statement released by Tesla following the accident, neither the driver nor the Autopilot engaged the vehicle’s brakes. The highly reflective side of the tractor-trailer coupled with a bright and sunny day reportedly confused the Model S’s sensors and prevented the Autopilot from responding. Given that the driver himself also did not apply the brakes, it is possible that even if the sensors had operated, the collision still might have happened.

This accident is undoubtedly tragic. Yet as semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles become more prevalent, it is unreasonable to assume they will be sufficient to prevent every accident. Among all vehicles in the United States, there is a fatality for every 94 million miles driven. This crash marks the only known fatality in over 130 million miles driven by Autopilot-enabled vehicles.

A video that the deceased driver released prior to the accident demonstrates the usefulness of this technology in more common situations. In the video, the Autopilot averted a collision when another vehicle changed lanes unexpectedly.

Rather than showing a need to restrain the use of this technology, this particular crash suggests that more autonomous technology might have helped to avoid this collision. As this and other accidents involving semi-autonomous vehicles are assessed, NHTSA regulators should proceed with caution and avoid decisions that inhibit the long-term growth and improvement of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles.

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