Excitement around self-driving cars has been building as the idea finally became a reality from innovators like Google and Tesla. But when the first reported fatal automated car crash occurred earlier this year, it made many wonder if driverless vehicles and the technology behind them should be reconsidered for safety reasons.
First death “in 130 million miles”
The fatal incident involved a Tesla Model S electric sedan in self-driving mode. As a tractor-trailer in front of the Tesla took a left turn, the car failed to apply its brakes. Tesla stated on its blog that the death was the first among 130 million miles driven in Autopilot, and that Autopilot is disabled by default. The driver is also apparently warned that their Autopilot technology is new, and “still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.”
It should be noted that the Model S by Tesla isn’t technically a “self-driving” car, but it does have the Autopilot technology included, using software, sensors, cameras and radar to help propel the vehicle and accomplish tasks like merging into traffic. Additionally, the Tesla asks drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times.
It isn’t clear whether the accident was due to the driver or the technology. Tesla did state that “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 has since said that they will be making improvements to the autopilot feature by increasing the range of the radar used.
As Tesla has moved from making expensive electric cars to more affordable, mainstream models, other auto makers are looking to take on self-driving technology, including Google and General Motors. Tests and research have been and continue to be conducted on driverless vehicles.
Indeed, more research is needed: last February, a Google car collided with a bus. Luckily, there were no reported injuries. More recently this past July, a Tesla Model X crashed while using Autopilot – the car was traveling along the highway at 55 – 60 mph when it drove off of the road and into a guard rail.
What the numbers, and the people, say about driverless cars.
A study released by University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute in October 2015 found that driverless or self-driving cars were actually more likely than traditional cars to get into an accident. The study also found that self-driving cars, at that point in time, hadn’t been at fault for any of the accidents that they were involved in.
To many, the fatal and non-fatal accidents signal that “we need to set a higher bar if we expect safety to actually be a benefit,” stated Mark Rosekind, leader of a recent tech conference in Novi, Mich. Karl Brauer from Kelly Blue Book agrees, adding that it’s a kind of wake-up call to automakers. “People who were maybe too aggressive in taking the position that we’re almost there, this technology is going to be in the market very soon, maybe need to reassess that.”