[UPDATED] Tesla’s Autopilot “failure” is a lesson in distracted driving

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As we reported this morning, the NHTSA is launching an investigation into a fatal accident involving a Tesla being driven in Autopilot. Is the incident a lesson in distracted driving or a a flaw in Autopilot? While the NHTSA has yet to investigate the accident, we do have witnesses and evidence to help us at least start the conversation about the incident. Much of the media coverage has swirled around Tesla’s Autopilot mode, which they seem to be confusing with “self-driving.” Autopilot is intended to reduce the workload on the operator of the vehicle.

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.

As Tesla has stated in their blog post, the Autopilot feature is in beta and is off by default. In order to activate the feature, you must go through a full acknowledgment that the system is in beta before enabling it. The most important part of activating Autopilot is acknowledging that the system requires you to keep your hands on the wheel, in case you need to take control. Before we continue, a brief overview for those who do not know about Autopilot. Tesla’s Autopilot works through a series of cameras and sensors located around the vehicle. The vehicle tracks surroundings and road markings to keep the vehicle within lanes and watch for any obstacles and traffic. Should the vehicle encounter any of those it takes appropriate action such as braking, moving or accelerating.

The most important part of Autopilot is understanding that this does not make your vehicle “self-driving.” You must keep your hands on the wheel and you must remain alert and aware of your surroundings. Think of Autopilot as cruise control with a few extra bells and whistles. In the Florida case it appears that distracted driving was involved. The driver of the tractor trailer that ultimately killed the Tesla driver states the driver was watching Harry Potter. The tractor trailer moved into the Tesla’s lane which either the driver didn’t see or assumed Autopilot would take over. Autopilot could not discern the bright white side of the trailer from the brightness of the sky and assumed there was nothing there. The vehicle went under the trailer and killed the driver.

There seems to have been a few factors at play here. Yes there is likely a flaw in the Tesla Autopilot system that it couldn’t discern its surroundings properly. But the added element of distracted driving is an important factor. If the driver had been paying attention instead of watching a movie, he may have been able to react. We’re not sure where he was consuming his content from. We’ve reached out to Tesla to inquire if the large center screen is capable of content playback while the vehicle is in motion.

The bottom line is. New technology is not perfect. There are many bugs and glitches to work out. This particular technology is explicitly billed as beta and users are warned to always keep alert as if they were driving a normal car. We’re not in a world of self-driving cars yet. We’re still far from that. The technology we do have should be used responsibly and without caviler attitude in regards to ones own safety and the safety of those around us.

This is a conversation that will continue while this technology and other technologies like it continue to develop. It is important to talk about it and brainstorm ideas about how the technologies can be made safely for everyone. Distracted driving was partially to blame in this case along with the error in the Tesla Autopilot. At this point we can only discuss how to make it better. What do you think? Leave your thoughts and comments below or hit us up on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

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