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US regulator to investigate Tesla after self-driving death

William Payne
July 5, 2016
 
The US car safety regulator is to investigate Tesla Motors self driving technology after the death of a driver in a Tesla Model S using the car's beta software Autopilot. Ex US Navy Seal Joshua Brown was killed by a trailer truck in Florida in May. Brown had Tesla's autopilot engaged at the time of the crash.
 
It is believed that Tesla's autopilot system could not recognise the high white fronted truck in bright sunlight, and drove straight into it.
 
The driver of the trailer truck involved in the crash has claimed that Brown was watching a Harry Potter film at the time of the crash. However, Tesla has said that it is impossible to watch films on the car's touchscreen.
 
The police have confirmed that they have found a portable DVD player in Brown's crashed Tesla, but have not said whether it was playing a film at the time.
 
Joshua Brown has become the first person to die while using a self driving vehicle.
 
Tesla released the autopilot software, which it describes as a "beta release" in October 2014. The car company says the software is "experimental" and should be used with caution.
 
The company adapted the autopilot earlier this year to improve safety after Tesla drivers had posted videos on YouTube showing dangerous behaviour such as reading a newspaper with the autopilot engaged. The safety improvements included a system of alerts for the driver.
 
Brown was one of the drivers whose behaviour had prompted Tesla to improve safety features in autopilot. In October 2015 he had posted a video to YouTube showing him posing for a "no hands" selfie while travelling on autopilot in his Tesla.
 
The company said in a statement: "Autopilot is by far the most advanced driver-assistance system on the road, but it does not turn a Tesla into an autonomous vehicle and does not allow the driver to abdicate responsibility. Since the release of autopilot, we've continuously educated customers on the use of the feature, reminding them that they’re responsible for remaining alert and present when using autopilot and must be prepared to take control at all times."
 
The company claims its safety record compares favourably with the US average of one fatality per 150 million kilometres among all vehicles. Tesla says that its vehicles had completed more than 200 million kilometres of autopilot driving.
 
However, Tesla's action in releasing software that it describes itself as experimental and beta has been strongly criticised by some industry figures.
 
Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety consumer lobbyist group based in Washington DC, described Tesla as using its customers as guinea pigs in an experiment.
 
Former head of the US car safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Joan Claybrook said Tesla's actions contrasted with the accepted practices of the car industry. She said established car manufacturers worked for years to refine new technologies to ensure absolute car safety.
 
Other self driving innovators, such as Apple, Google and British aerospace and defence technology firm BAE, have engaged in lengthy testing of new technology in carefully controlled testing environments. Where testing has taken place in public, routes and areas have been specially chosen and speeds have been controlled.
 
Of Tesla, Claybrook said: "They shouldn't be doing beta-testing on the public. The history of the auto industry is they test and test and test. This is a life and death issue."
 
Under current US regulations, the NHTSA has no pre-market regulatory authority. They are powerless to prevent car makers from releasing potentially unsafe software to their cars.
 
Regulators will issue new guidelines for automated vehicles in July to ensure that new technologies are safe.
 
The NHTSA is discussing developing new safety standards for self driving vehicles, as well as independent third party certification authorities for new car technologies. However, these new standards are still in the discussion stages, and will not be incorporated into the July guidelines.
 
There are calls from safety advocates and groups for the NHTSA's remit to be widened, and for it to be empowered to react more quickly and proscriptively to new developments in car safety.