Tesla driver killed using Autopilot mode

Self-driving system failed to distinguish between white side of tractor and brightly-lit sky

Tesla Model S
(Image credit: Tesla)

A man has died in the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car.

Joshua Brown was killed when his Tesla Model S, operating in Autopilot mode, failed to recognise an 18-wheel lorry crossing the highway in front of him. The accident took place in Williston, Florida, in May.

"Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied," Tesla said in a statement.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The Model S attempted to drive underneath the trailer and was struck on the windscreen. "The top of Joshua Brown's 2015 Tesla Model S vehicle was torn off by the force of the collision," the Levy Journal reports. "The truck driver, Frank Baressi, 62, from Tampa was not injured in the crash."

Brown had posted a dashcam video on YouTube only weeks before the accident, showing his car successfully avoiding a highway collision thanks to Autopilot, reports the BBC.

The accident comes at a time when US drivers are becoming more open to the idea of self-driving vehicles, The Guardian reports. "Tesla has generated enormous fanfare with its autopilot mode and inspired consumers – despite the company's warnings – to see just how much they can do while letting the car drive," it says.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into the accident, which may result in a recall of Tesla's Autopilot vehicles if the system is deemed to be at fault. Alternatively, the company could issue a new "over the air" update to its cars and avoid having to physically recall them.

Tesla's statement stressed that Autopilot is disabled by default and drivers have to explicitly acknowledge that it is new technology which is still in a "public beta phase" before they can activate it.

It adds that the system “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times" and that drivers "need to maintain control and responsibility" over the vehicle.

Autopilot is not yet a fully autonomous system, says Forbes, and control of the car is shared between machine and human.

When the system was introduced in October 2015, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk urged drivers to be cautious when using it. "The driver cannot abdicate responsibility," he said.

Musk has since taken to Twitter to share his condolences for the "tragic loss".

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.