A Tesla Fatality and the Future of Self-Driving Cars

Tesla employees work on a Model S cars in the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif.

Tesla employees work on a Model S cars in the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. Jeff Chiu/AP

The Model S’s Autopilot isn’t technically a driverless feature, but the federal investigation into why a driver using it was killed will still influence the future of driverless vehicles.

Federal officials are investigating a crash that killed the driver of a Model S, a Tesla vehicle with a partially autonomous driving system, in a move that has major implications for the future of driverless vehicles.

“This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated …” Tesla wrote in a statement Thursday. “It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.”

The investigation may be standard procedure, but it’s also certain to influence the ongoing conversation about the safety of self-driving vehicles.

The Model S isn’t technically a driverless car, but Tesla has been a vocal player in the race to bring truly driverless cars to market. The company’s Autopilot feature is an assistive technology, meaning that drivers are instructed to keep their hands on the wheel while using it—even though it is sophisticated enough to complete tasks like merging onto the highway. It wasn’t clear from Tesla’s statement how engaged the driver was at the time of the crash.

“What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S,” Tesla said. “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

Autopilot is still in beta mode, so drivers who use it have agreed to test the technology for Tesla and transmit data about its use back to the company. Tesla has repeatedly emphasized that Autopilot requires drivers to stay as focused as they would if they were driving as usual. But that hasn’t stopped people from viewing Autopilot as a stepping stone to a self-driving near-future—or more.

When the feature was first introduced last fall, it didn’t take long before people began uploading YouTube videos of themselves pushing the Model S beyond its intended level of autonomy. Some drivers sat with their hands far from the wheel. In one video, a man held up a newspaper between himself and the windshield as the car essentially drove itself.

“They’re not all being insanely stupid,” John Leonard, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me at the time. “But some of these people are totally reckless.”

Plenty of roboticists chalk up these stunts to human nature, but they pose a real quandary to engineers who are building driverless systems to be safer than existing human-driven vehicles.

“I think people just exhibit unsafe behaviors period, right?” said Missy Cummings, the head of Duke’s Robotics Lab, when I met with her at the university last month. “We have seen—and Google has their own films of it—what people will do to a car if they think it is driverless. There’s a gamesmanship.”

Experts have long said the first death involving a driverless or partially autonomous car was only a matter of time. After all, there are more than 30,000 traffic fatalities every year in the United States alone. The fact that Google’s driverless fleet has logged more than 1.5 million miles in fully-autonomous mode and caused just one minor accident along the way is remarkable. But even the biggest advocates for driverless technologies say a perfect track-record on safety isn’t sustainable.

What remains to be seen is how people will react—both culturally and from a regulatory standpoint—to driverless-car deaths when they occur.

So far, the self-driving car industry—which includes Tesla, Google and several existing automakers—have resisted establishing universal safety standards. Their testing data is also proprietary. It’s possible that, in the wake of Tesla’a fatality, lawmakers will revisit the possibility that such standards should be drawn up by the government, which could force more public scrutiny of the technology.

“I think if they would come together and set their own standards, that would be very beneficial to them—instead of having federal oversight,” Cummings said. “I have no confidence that the U.S. government can put together what I would say would be good safety standards. But I do think industry can.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.