After Uber; Tesla is involved in Model X Autonomous Mode Death

After the death of a pedestrian by an Uber AV in Arizona, we find out that a Tesla Model X in autonomous mode crashed into a concrete barrier and blew into flames, killing its driver on the 23rd of March in Mountain View, CA. The driver was 38-year-old Apple engineer Walter Huang.

Is the future of AV testing under question?

According to Tesla, the Model X was in autonomous mode when it crashed; the driver died shortly after. A message posted on Tesla's site stated that "The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive. The driver's hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision. The driver had about five seconds and 150m (490ft) of an unobstructed view of the concrete divider… but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken."

Tesla also went on to add on its site some facts and figures, hoping that these will help people feel safe with AV even though they do get involved in accidents, here is what they posted on their site;

"In the US, there is one automotive fatality every 86 million miles across all vehicles from all manufacturers. For Tesla, there is one fatality, including known pedestrian fatalities, every 320 million miles in vehicles equipped with Autopilot hardware. If you are driving a Tesla equipped with Autopilot hardware, you are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident.

Tesla Autopilot does not prevent all accidents – such a standard would be impossible – but it makes them much less likely to occur. It unequivocally makes the world safer for the vehicle occupants, pedestrians, and cyclists.

No one knows about the accidents that didn't happen, only the ones that did. The consequences of the public not using Autopilot, because of an inaccurate belief that it is less safe, would be extremely severe. There are about 1.25 million automotive deaths worldwide. If the current safety level of a Tesla vehicle were to be applied, it would mean about 900,000 lives saved per year. We expect the safety level of autonomous cars to be 10 times safer than non-autonomous cars."

The National Transportation Safety Board is already involved in investigating the accident together with local law enforcement. Their investigators have already been noted to state that Tesla does not fully understand the limitations of AV. This came after a previous crash in 3016 when a Tesla S crashed into a fire-truck that was parked on the side of the highway.

My Take

I don't know why people are surprised that there are accidents with AV's. This is a new technology, it is not AI, nor is it close to being finished. There are not complete algorithms in place providing 100% bullet proof performance standards, and all AV companies have not yet completed their research and development of the various components that make up AV.

Add to this the fact that AV's are driving in human controlled environments, not a sterile machine world. Now also add to that the fact that computer hardware as well as software has glitches and bugs, which are a common day occurrence. Sure, you might not hear of all of them, but they happen daily.

AV is in its infancy, even Mobileye, which has been around for a decade has not created an AV solution, only an early detection warning system that beeps when you get close to another object, which is only on the tenth of the AV technology construct. You need to add to this a 360-degree system that not only warns you of oncoming objects but also knows how to steer a car while controlling its gears, brakes and understand how to navigate roads.

The fact that there have only been three deaths associated with AV is amazing, and at the same time unfortunate. These figures will grow, as AV progresses, and no one is immune to the dangers of car and road accidents, especially not AV controlled cars in human managed environments.