The First Recorded Crash Involving Tesla’s Autopilot Feature and Why It Is So Important

While I know that this crash has been highly publicized in the past few days, I find it only fitting that I should publish a blog post on this.

On May 7, in Williston, Florida, a fatal accident occurred. While this shouldn’t come as a surprise to many, it should It doesn’t matter that the deceased driver of a Tesla Model S became one of the 3,287 daily deaths from automotive crashes every day. It certainly doesn’t make it any easier to digest.

This incident was the first self-driving car death on record. Between Tesla’s extensive testing of the semi-autonomous Autopilot feature, and owners’ use of the feature, there are 130 million miles of Autopilot being used.

The fatal accident occurred when a tractor-trailer made a left turn at an intersection without a traffic light in front of the Tesla. The driver, Joshua Brown, died of injuries sustained in the wreck.

Tesla published a blog post saying that the Model S was travelling on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when the tractor-trailer crossed its path.

“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 high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.”

Tesla went onto say that they were saddened by the loss of Brown, who was a “friend to Tesla and the broader EV community,” as well as stating that the risk of injury will decrease as Autopilot gets better over time, as it is currently in a public beta stage. Whenever Autopilot is engaged, a warning is displayed to remind the driver that the technology is in public beta and that the driver should have both hands on the wheel at all times, in the event of an emergency such as this.

Per company policy, Tesla notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration when they heard of the incident. NHTSA has since launched an investigation into the crash and Autopilot.

The AP (Associated Press) reports that the driver of the truck, Frank Baressi, says that he heard a “Harry Potter” movie playing in the Tesla following the crash, however he was not able to see where it was coming from. NHTSA investigators do not believe it was playing on the massive infotainment screen in the Tesla (which would require hacking into the operating system of the car). However, the report does state that a portable DVD player was found in the car following the crash, but it is unclear whether it was playing at the time of the crash.

Baressi could face charges for making an unsafe maneuver, but he claims that he was unable to see the Model S, as it was travelling at a high rate of speed. It appears that Baressi failed to yield to the right-of-way when making a left turn, especially in something large and heavy enough that he could not accelerate quickly enough to get out of the way.

It is understandable to me why Tesla, ever the perfectionist, would not want to release Autopilot as a final product just yet. To me, Tesla should not have named Autopilot as such. It implies that the car can fully drive itself without ANY control from the driver (it can do about 75% of that).

The co-developer of the Autopilot technology used in the Model S, Mobileye, said that the technology was not designed for such circumstances. The automatic emergency braking feature built into Autopilot is specifically designed to avoid rear-end collisions, and the incident was one that it could not have prevented. Mobileye went onto say that by 2018, there will be a Lateral Turn Across Path detection capability in it’s systems, and said feature will be included as part of the Euro NCAP safety ratings in 2020.

While we will have to wait for the official NHTSA report to come out, we can only speculate. Here’s my two cents:

This was a clear case of user error. Whether Brown was watching Harry Potter at the time of the crash or not, he obviously did not see Baressi’s tractor-trailer pulling out in front of him. It doesn’t matter how fast he was going – the crash would have likely happened regardless. That’s not to say that speed wasn’t a factor in the crash. If Brown had been going slower (the speed he was travelling is not currently released to the public), he might be alive. Baressi clearly did not see the Model S, or he would not have made the turn.

2016 Tesla Model S

The Top Car-Killing Movies!

Just about everybody knows that breaking stuff is fun.  When directors get gigantic budgets and a car chase to shoot, sometimes they go overboard.  These movies destroyed the most cars – the numbers are crazy!

  • Ronin (1998):  Yes, Ronin was a good movie.  One of the many cool parts about it?  Director John Frankenheimer was a former amateur racer.  He enlisted former French Formula 1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier and 300 OTHER stunt drivers to film the insane chase through Paris.  The result?  An epic eight-minute chase sequence that deserves a spot in the car chase hall of fame.  Oh, and they destroyed a mere 80 cars.  That’s nothing compared to other movies on this list!  Watch it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVaNBrYLvFg
  • Bullitt (1968):  Yes, it is riddled with some funny errors – the 1968 Dodge Charger loses five hubcaps from four wheels over the course of the chase!  However, it is still one of the greatest car chases ever produced.  People are still making their own versions of it almost fifty years later.  The iconic Highland Green big-block Mustang fastback reached speeds well over 100 mph on the hilly streets of San Francisco, sometimes even with the legendary Steve McQueen behind the wheel!  More than 80 cars were destroyed during the filming of the movie.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vNvc9n1ikI
  • Gone in 60 Seconds (1974):  Director, producer, stunt driver, and star of the original Gone in 60 Seconds H.B. Halicki was given a tiny $150,000 budget, but the movie has now grossed more than $40 million.  He drove the original “Eleanor” – the tastefully customized 1973 Mustang (to this day, one of the best-looking Mustangs ever) throughout the chase scene.  Somebody else from the crew would drive the car throughout the rest of the movie (cameraman, actor, etc.).  Many of the bystanders were members of the public – there was no money for extras.  Some of the crashes were completely unscripted, which makes the movie that much better.  When Halicki clipped another car at 100 mph and spun into a lamppost, he ended up in the hospital.  The crash ended up in the film.  Gone in 60 Seconds destroyed 93 cars.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMz3g1x75pU
  • The Blues Brothers (1980 and 2000):  The 1980 version of the film held the record for the most cars violently destroyed until the 2000 remake, which smashed the record (pun intended) by a whopping ONE car!  For the 1980 film, 60 used police cars were bought for $400 apiece, fitted with reinforced frames.  Almost all of the cars were unusable by the end of filming.  The 1980 version destroyed 103 cars.  The 2000 version decimated 104 cars.  This is the 1980 version:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMagP52BWG8 and this is the 2000 version:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDEFL2fLGIE
  • G.I. Joe (2009):  Yes, it is an awful film by every account.  It also happened to briefly hold the record for most cars destroyed in a movie (112 cars).  It beat The Blues Brothers (2000) by eight cars.  Maybe blowing up stuff isn’t as exciting as we all thought it was as kids.  That being said, enjoy the gratuitous automotive destruction at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0GBhbu-0aQ
  • A Good Day to Die Hard (2013):  Sometimes, it’s best to leave the best alone.  Some movies don’t need a sequel, let alone four.  Die Hard is one of said movies.  Sadly, 25 years after Bruce Willis “killed” Alan Rickman (the guy who played Snape in the Harry Potter movies, kids), we are talking about the fifth and worst Die Hard yet.  Willis and the cast somehow destroyed 132 cars and badly damaged an incredible 518 cars PAST their 132 dead brethren.  That being said, the car chase is good.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWNie0rdXlI
  • The Junkman (1982):  Have you ever heard of The Junkman?  I hadn’t either until now.  It’s the crashiest film you’ve never heard of.  Directed by H.B. Alicki, the crash-hungry director of Gone in 60 Seconds, it reportedly killed more than 150 cars.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIh_IbxIrr8
  • Fast Five (2011):  All in all, over 1000 cars have been destroyed since the first Fast & Furious.  That’s more than one a minute in total film time.  260 cars were destroyed in Fast Five.  However, Fast & Furious 6 used about 400 cars, with few surviving.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-4zZBGfF98
  • Matrix Reloaded (2003):  Somehow, the folks behind Matrix Reloaded managed to kill 300 cars loaned to them by GM.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSPAPeO17Zk
  • Transformers 3 (2011):  By definition, every one of the 532 cars destroyed were ready for the junkyard – they were all donated to director Michael Bay because of flood damage.  They needed to be scrapped by law anyways – why not destroy them violently? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSPAPeO17Zk

Well, that’s my list!  I hope that you enjoyed it, as well as the chase scenes.  I recommend you watch this song while listening to “Rockin’ Down the Highway” by the Doobie Brothers.  It seems fitting.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Drg50H3nNAk