The NHTSA is opening an investigation into a fatal accident involving a Tesla driving in Autopilot mode. This is the first Tesla fatality involving Autopilot, Tesla shares dropped three percent overnight on the news of the investigation. Joshua D. Brown of Canton, Ohio was the victim in this first Tesla fatality involving a tractor trailer. Brown was driving on a divided highway in Autopilot apparently watching Harry Potter when the trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to Brown’s Tesla. Autopilot did not recognize the white side of the trailer against the brightly lit sky neither did Brown so the brakes were never applied.
UPDATE (7/01/2016 02:25ET): Officials have disclosed that a portable DVD player was found in the Tesla which could reinforce the truck drivers story, read the full story on MSN.
Frank Baressi, 62, the driver of the truck and owner of Okemah Express LLC, said the Tesla driver was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” at the time of the crash and driving so quickly that “he went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him.”
The movie “was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road,” Baressi told The Associated Press in an interview from his home in Palm Harbor, Florida. He acknowledged he didn’t see the movie, only heard it.
Tesla acknowledged the fatality and issued a statement in a blog post.
It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it.
Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.
This Tesla fatality is certainly going to get people thinking about driverless cars and Autopilot. With the NHTSA involved now, we may see regulations coming down the road. What do you think of this situation? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.