First deadly crash in autopilot mode - US authority investigates

July 01, 2016 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
After the first lethal crash that involved a car in autopilot mode in the USA, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has started a preliminary evaluation of the accident. Apparently, the electronic autopilot equipment of the vehicle failed to recognize the truck into which the passenger car crashed.

The accident already occurred in May, but the NHTSA only yesterday announced the opening of its evaluation of the case. The circumstances of the crash highlight the limitations and shortcomings of autonomous driving technology at the current state of development. According to reports, the vehicle – a Tesla Model S – crashed at full speed against a truck crossing the highway on which the Tesla driver was underway. The camera-based autopilot failed to identify the truck, probably because it was white and the background also was rather bright. According to media sources, the radar echo of the trailer has been suppressed because it was erroneously mistaken as a road sign. Apparently, Tesla’s system is also not equipped with lidar sensors. Such sensors would have been able to detect the truck at much higher probability.

Tesla acknowledged the case in a blog post, pointing out that this was “the first known fatality in just over 130 milllion miles where autopilot was activated.” The company added that among all vehicles in the United States, there is one fatality every 94 million miles. In addition, Tesla pointed out that the autopilot gear for the company’s vehicles is a “beta version” and that the driver is required to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times.