The first fatality while using AutoPilot, Tesla’s semi-autonomous system, happened in May this year in a 2015 Model S. It has changed the debate surrounding autonomous cars, leading to calls to remove AutoPilot from Model S cars and slow down industry adoption of the tech.
However, the New York Times revealed Tesla has moved the blame to a fault in the automatic braking system, according to a staff member at the Senate Commerce Committee, which is currently investigating the crash.
The two systems, automatic braking and AutoPilot, are apparently separate in the Model S. That has raised eyebrows amongst some, who thought that the AutoPilot would be able to control most of the car’s systems while online.
“Those systems are supposed to work together to prevent an accident,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, to NYT. “But either the car didn’t know it had to stop, or it did know and wasn’t able to stop. That involves Autopilot and the automatic braking.”
Tesla has been investigating the crash for a few months now, trying to identify why the car’s radar was unable to recognize the tractor crossing the roadway. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has tweeted a few details from the investigation, but there’s still no concrete answer from the automaker.
Tesla & NHTSA want benefits of self-driving known
At the same time, Musk has also defended the AutoPilot beta program and ensured that drivers are safer thanks to it. That has been difficult to quantify however, since there isn’t the same uproar over someone saved by the autonomous system as there is for someone that died from it. But even the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) wants the overall safety benefits evaluated before it will kibosh all autonomous technologies.
If the crash was caused by an automatic braking system, it might remove the fear surrounding AutoPilot, at least partially. Though is it any better that a widely adopted system failed instead of AutoPilot?
We’ll have to wait and see. Consumer confidence in Tesla appears to still be high, if you count stock valuation and car purchases as metrics of confidence. Musk’s defence of AutoPilot and vision of the future may have diminished some fears of the system and of Tesla as well.