One death and many saves: the deal with autonomous cars today

Cross-posted from TechnoNerd.  Read these 3 incidents first:

5th April, 2016: Joshua Brown uploads a video of his Tesla Model S automatically steering itself to the right, saving him from a possibly fatal crash with a boom lift truck. The truck was entering an interstate road and the truck driver didn’t notice Brown’s Tesla Model S. The Model S, thanks to it’s autopilot system, sensed the possibility of a collision and immediately swerved to the right, and transferred control back to the driver.

Brown’s video currently has over 3 million views on YouTube, thanks to Elon Musk’s tweet sharing it.

7th May, 2016: Joshua Brown dies… in his Tesla Model S, marking the first death caused by a self-driving vehicle. Quoting from Tesla’s blog post about this incident: “What we know is 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 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.”

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Source: Reuters
6th August, 2016: Joshua Neally, an attorney in Springfield, Missouri, was driving home in his one-week-old Model X (with autopilot turned on). He suddenly felt excruciating pain, so he called his wife and decided to go to an emergency centre. Instead of calling 911 and waiting for an ambulance, Neally let his Model X drive itself 20 miles till an exit ramp, and then took control and drove to a nearby hospital. Neally had suffered from pulmonary embolism, a blockage of lung arteries that often leads to death. Neally credits the Model X for saving his life.

Autonomous cars are going to be the future, and all companies are here to embrace it. Apple seems to be developing an autonomous electric car, Google is actively testing it’s pod-like self-driving cars, and concepts by BMW,Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Porsche, Rolls Royce and Ford (to name a few) all have autonomous driving systems.

Statistically speaking, Tesla still holds an excellent safety record. Not only are the cars comparatively safe in a collision, but they are also fairly aware of their surroundings. Of the 130 million miles that have been driven in Autopilot mode, Joshua Brown’s incident is the first known fatality. Compare that to the fatality rate of one death per 60 million miles of non-autonomous driving (considering that there are millions of cars on the road globally that are moving at the same time, 60 million miles is barely anything), and you’ll immediately note that autonomous cars are indeed safer.

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Musk announces that the Model X, just like the Model S, is rated 5-star for safety by NHTSA. Image source: bioage.typepad.com

The third incident gives light to another question: did the Model X really save Neally? It may have, because waiting for an ambulance would be a waste of precious time, perhaps killing Neally. At the same time, what would have happened if the Model X met with an accident in autopilot mode and made the whole situation worse?

On a positive ending, it is good to see Tesla taking the right steps in improving autopilot, slowly but eventually giving rise to autonomous vehicles. Tesla’s cars “learn” through experiencing a situation, and the more they are driven, the greater the database of autopilot driving. Perhaps some of these incidents have made an impact – so next time you are about to drive into a lorry, your Tesla would be more cautions.