The Tesla Crash

We’ve been hearing a lot about self-driving technology in the news lately.  Some manufacturers are promising the technology before the end of this decade, while others are just toying with the idea.  Google has talked about their goals for self-driving cars, and they seem to be taking the strides to make things happen.  While it appears that we’re getting closer to the technology, a fatal accident may be responsible for derailing the plans.

It’s not new technology, people have been experimenting with the self-driving car capabilities for several years now, but no one has quite perfected the concept.   One car manufacturer, however, has given it a bigger shot than the others have, and have actually installed a feature called autopilot in their vehicles.  Used in the flight industry for a very long time, autopilot can allow a plane to be flown almost without human interactions, so Tesla’s car version sounded like a pretty safe bet, despite its fledgling status.

Unfortunately, Tesla’s autopilot system is being threatened, as the result of a fatal car accident in Florida.  A man, 40, was using the lane keeping and automatic braking features in his Tesla Model S.  He was exceeding the speed limit by less than ten miles, when suddenly he was striking an eighteen wheeler on the underside.  While this crash may not have been deadly, the car kept going and slid under the belly of the truck, shearing the roof from the car.  The driver, Joshua Brown, was killed in the crash.  People are now blaming Tesla’s autopilot system, and an investigation is underway to determine what happened.

Tesla’s Autopilot system uses a complex system of cameras and sensors to allow drivers partial autonomy.  The car will stay in a lane, brake, avoid obstacles, switch lanes when safe with a small cue from the driver, and adjust the speed accordingly.  However, the system is far from perfect, and can’t be trusted to override basic human self-preservation mode.

When the system was released, Tesla called it public beta testing, indicating that all of the kinks had yet to be worked out the system.  Drivers were warned to exercise caution when using the autopilot feature, and to still use good judgement when it came to driving.  Now, in light of this tragedy, Tesla is left to figure out what failed, and how it failed so spectacularly.

There have been many theories circulated as to what could’ve gone wrong to cause such a terrible accident, but until the investigation is complete, it’s all speculation at this point.  The first theory was that the autopilot was unable to see the side of the truck, as it was white and blended with the sunlight. Tesla next theorized that the vehicle’s camera and radar system failed.  The system is trained to not flag on bridges and overpasses, and the theory is that the car kept going underneath the truck because it mistook it to be a bridge.  The system is also unreliable when it comes to cross-traffic detection.

It doesn’t help the cause when Tesla’s camera and radar design company, Mobileye, is trying to cover themselves in the media.  They are saying that their system was not set up to detect cross-traffic and they are “unsure” as to whether or not Tesla was able to remodel that aspect of the software.  They have also, publicly, stated that they will cease their relationship with Tesla as a result of this crash.  Meanwhile, Tesla has remained silent about further dealings with the company.

There was no evidence that the autopilot system, or the driver himself had tried to brake during the collision, and experts are looking into the potential that the brakes were to blame.  There is speculation, now, that the autopilot detected the collision potential but did nothing to stop the car, resulting in a failure of their crash prevention system.

Tesla is adamantly defending their autopilot system, claiming that vehicles have traveled over a 130 million miles using it, and have done so without harm.  There is a long road ahead for Tesla, as they meet with Congress and the Senate to go to bat, not only for their system, but for the future potential of others’ as well.

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