May 17, 2019
Ryan Whitwam

Tesla Model 3 in Fatal Accident Had Autopilot Engaged

Tesla’s Autopilot system is the most advanced self-driving system for cars available to consumers, but it’s not perfect. In fact, drivers have gotten themselves into trouble by assuming Autopilot was more capable than it really is. Several Tesla crashes have resulted in fatalities, and another deadly crash occurred in March. According to a newly released report, the driver in that accident had Autopilot activated at the time.

The collision on March 1 occurred when the car driven by Jeremy Beren Banner struck a semi towing a trailer on a highway near Delray Beach, Florida. The truck was turning left, moving across lanes of traffic. The Tesla Model 3 did not brake or slow down as it approached the other vehicle. The impact sheared the roof off the Model 3 as it passed under the trailer, killing Banner.

According to the brief National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, the driver activated Autopilot and stopped steering eight seconds before the crash. That doesn’t mean his hands were off the wheel, but he was not actively turning the wheel. So, when the car hit the semi, it was Autopilot’s stick. This is the fourth known deadly crash in which Autopilot was activated.

There are five generally accepted levels of self-driving technology. Level one includes basic automation like lane assistance, which already exists in plenty of cars. At level two, a car can support one or more tasks without the driver’s constant interaction — for example, steering and brake for several seconds on the highway without driver intervention. Level three requires advances sensors to help cars process the environment around the car and drive for extended periods. At level four, a car is smart enough to handle almost all the driving itself, and at level five you can take a nap in the back seat because the car might not even have a steering wheel.

Overhead signs present a challenge for autopilot systems

Tesla is a strong level two or weak level three. It’s flirting with being a fully self-driving system, but it doesn’t have LIDAR like the Waymo cars. Tesla Autopilot is just good enough that people begin trusting it to handle all the driving, but it can’t cope with all situations. In the case of the recent crash, the car’s radar system probably couldn’t see the semi’s trailer because it was too high off the ground.

Tesla issued a statement in which it points out Autopilot has logged more than a billion miles of real-world driving. Its data supposedly shows that drivers are overall safer when they enable Autopilot.

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