Who’s to Blame for the First Self-Driving Car Death?

Is it the carmaker? The (non-)driver? Harry Potter?

July 1, 2016 9:00 am

Let’s make one thing clear: this was always going to happen.

Someone was always going to be the first person to die in a car being controlled, at least in part, autonomously, and the media was always going to race to assign blame to and/or defend the automaker whose car was, at least in part, responsible for that death.

In May, former Navy SEAL Joshua Brown died in Florida after his Tesla Model S slammed into a tractor-trailer while the car was in Autopilot mode. According to details from an NHTSA investigation that was released yesterday, he was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” at the time of the death.

“It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road,” said tractor-trailer driver Frank Baressi. “He went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him.”

While the exact details have yet to be firmly established (Tesla has said it’s impossible to watch videos on the touchscreen of the Model S, leading some to speculate Brown was listening to an audiobook), no one is disputing Brown was using his car’s Autopilot feature when he died, not even Tesla.

“This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated,” according to Tesla’s statement about the matter. “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

Some circles have been quick to point the finger at Tesla for faulty technology and a misleading moniker (“Autopilot”); others, the driver, who shared a video of Autopilot saving his ass just a month before his death and presumably had little regard for Tesla’s instructions that drivers should never treat the system as a fully autonomous one.

One fact the accident hammers home, though: technology is flawed, and the need for defensive driving is not something that will go the way of the dodo anytime soon.

As Tesla puts it: “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”

Stay on your toes out there.

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