BRITISH owners of Tesla electric cars are waiting to hear whether they can safely use the vehicles after an American driver was killed while using the Autopilot self-driving system. Safety authorities in the United States are conducting an urgent investigation into the death of Joshua Brown who was at the wheel of a Tesla Model S in Florida when it crashed into the trailer of a lorry that was pulling across the road.
The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) – the authority that monitors car safety in Britain – said it needed to hear from the Californian manufacturer about the implications of the crash and whether any changes were to be made to the car.
Updates to the car’s software could be made “over air” but more far-reaching improvements to the car’s sensors could require a recall involving tens of thousands of cars. Tesla has admitted that the Autopilot system may have been at fault because it failed to recognise the lorry’s white trailer against a brightly lit sky.
The Sunday Times raised concerns over Autopilot after testing it last November when it failed to “see” a car fast approaching in an outside lane on the M4 and tried to pull out. Only rapid intervention by our driver averted a collision.
One driver of a Tesla Model S told Driving: “It’s worrying – it’s very worrying. But I’m confident that Tesla will fix whatever the problem is within a short time. They’re so good at everything else I’m sure they can fix that.”
The accident that killed Brown – who only recently took to social media to praise Autopilot for preventing a collision while he was driving – took place in perfect weather conditions. Tesla said that “…the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”
The Californian car maker added that due to the raised ride height of the trailer, the Model S passed under the trailer and the brunt of the impact was with the windscreen and A-pillar area. Experts have raised doubts about Tesla’s explanation because, in addition to cameras, the car has ultrasonic and radar sensors which should be unaffected by light conditions.
Noel Sharkey, co-director of Responsible Robotics, and Emeritus Professor of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield, told BBC Radio 4 that Tesla’s explanation troubled him.
“That would effect the camera, but ultrasonic sensors send out a little cheep of sound and then determine how long it takes for that sound to come back and can determine distances. So it shouldn’t be affected by white or light at all.”
If serious faults are found, it could have broader implications for the future of self-driving cars, which car makers have claimed can help prevent accidents and reduce the number of deaths on roads.
Autopilot is a £2,500 option on the £53,000 Model S in Britain. Drivers are warned that it is “beta” system under test. It can speed up or slow down a car in traffic, steer for drivers and carry out a lane change but the driver is meant to maintain a grip of the steering wheel at all times and be ready to intervene in an emergency situation.
Many owners, particularly in the US, seem to regard these warnings as overcautious. Some have posted videos showing them performing stunts, such as reading Hamlet at the wheel or climbing into the back seats while Autopilot drives the car. Even Talulah Riley, the actress and estranged wife of Elon Musk, has danced at the wheel as the car was driving itself.
There are 25,000 Model S cars fitted with Autopilot in the US in America. Tesla could not be reached to provide figures for the number of UK Model S cars that feature Autopilot.
According to Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla, Autopilot is safer than human drivers. “It never gets tired, it’s never had anything to drink, it’s never arguing with someone in the car. It’s not distracted,” he said at the launch.
In its statement, the NHTSA said: “The opening of the Preliminary Evaluation should not be construed as a finding that the Office of Defects Investigation believes there is either a presence or absence of a defect in the subject vehicles.”