First Fatal Accident For Self-Driving Car As Working Group Prepares Recommendations For Maryland

A Miami Herald article (2016-06-30) reported the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle in autonomous mode. The accident took place in Williston, Florida, on May 7 when the cameras of a Tesla Model S sedan failed to detect the white side of a turning tractor trailer from the bright background sky. According to the article, the car failed to engage its brakes and collided with the trailer. The accident occurred as a Maryland Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Working Group is preparing recommendations on the regulation of autonomous and connected vehicles. Conduit Street has previously reported on the activities of the Working Group.

“Autonomous vehicles” are vehicles that have some capacity to self-drive while “connected vehicles” are those that continuously share and receive information remotely. Both kinds of vehicles are already in use in Maryland, but the state and county governments must prepare for the challenges fully autonomous vehicles will pose. From the Herald article:

Tesla says that before Autopilot can be used, drivers have to acknowledge that the system is an “assist feature” that requires a driver to keep both hands on the wheel at all times. …

Autopilot makes frequent checks, making sure the driver’s hands are on the wheel, and it gives visual and audible alerts if hands aren’t detected, and it gradually slows the car until a driver responds, the statement said.

The Autopilot mode allows the Model S sedan and Model X SUV to steer itself within a lane, change lanes and speed up or slow down based on surrounding traffic or the driver’s set speed. It can automatically apply brakes and slow the vehicle. It can also scan for parking spaces and parallel park on command

Tesla conceded that the Autopilot feature is not perfect, but said in the statement that it’s getting better all the time. “When used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety,” the company said.

NHTSA’s Office of Defects is handling the investigation. The opening of the preliminary evaluation shouldn’t be construed as a finding that the government believes the Model S is defective, NHTSA said in a statement.

The Tesla death comes as NHTSA is taking steps to ease the way onto the nation’s roads for self-driving cars, an anticipated sea-change in driving where Tesla has been on the leading edge. Self-driving cars have been expected to be a boon to safety because they’ll eliminate human errors. Human error is responsible for about 94 percent of crashes.

Members of the Working Group received a demonstration of the Tesla Autopilot in real driving conditions on Route 100 near Baltimore Washington International Airport. The Working Group’s recommendations are expected later this year. The recommendations can affect county governments in several ways, including: (1) infrastructure and road requirements; (2) law enforcement practices; and (3) legal and liability issues. Howard County Deputy Director and Bureau Chief of Environmental Services Mark DeLuca and MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp are the local government representatives on the Working Group.

Useful Links

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of Autonomous Vehicles

Learn more about autonomous vehicles at the 2016 MACo Summer Conference panel: Are We There Yet? Autonomous Vehicles and the Future of Transportation.

Learn more about MACo’s Summer Conference: