Today we found out that Joshua Brown became the first person to die in a self-driving car, crashing into a truck turning across a Florida highway. At the moment, that’s about all we know. This very well could have been entirely his self-driving Tesla’s fault, just as it could have had absolutely nothing to do with autonomous driving in the least.
It’s important to note that Tesla itself acknowledges that its sensors have difficulty detecting tractor trailers. Just over a month before Brown’s fatal crash, another Tesla Model S crashed into a different tractor trailer. That time the car did not have anyone in it. Tesla officially recognized that there’s a hole in their sensor sweep:
Please note that the vehicle may not detect certain obstacles, including those that are very narrow (e.g., bikes), lower than the fascia, or hanging from the ceiling.
So just as it’s also possible that there is a distinct technical failing that caused Brown’s Tesla to not “see” the truck pulling out in front of it. That the car didn’t see the truck is Tesla’s own description taken from their statement on the crash:
Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.
Brown posted a video a month before his fatal wreck, in which he has a near-miss with a smaller truck and his autopilot system dodges it veering into his lane. Brown admitted that he wasn’t watching that part of the road.
It’s possible that Brown was overly reliant on a Tesla that was not prepared to handle this kind of situation.
But it’s also possible that if Brown had been in a completely ordinary car, driving himself, it’s possible that the outcome might have been no different.
For all we know, the tractor trailer could have pulled out at the last second, not seeing Brown and his car. It’d be a freak accident, and there’s little that the driver, computer-controlled or not, could do about it.
Indeed, this is a kind of crash that humans are themselves really bad at dealing with. Bright light across a highway, blinding a driver of a white truck unexpectedly pulling out into a car’s way.
At least we know that NHTSA, possibly America’s worst federal agency, is on the case.