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article imageFatal Tesla crash raises questions about autonomous vehicles

By Karen Graham     Jul 2, 2016 in Technology
Autonomous driving technology is in the hot seat after it was learned last week that a fatal car crash in May involved a Tesla Model S sports car in Florida.
While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is now investigating the accident that occurred in Williston, Florida last month, this does not mean the agency believes the technology contributed to the crash or may be defective.
But the accident raises questions about our turning human functions such as using the brakes, steering and split-second driving judgments over to machines. And if nothing else, the crash of the Tesla will raise questions over the performance of autonomous driving technology and perhaps, more importantly, how drivers treat it.
Until the NHTSA got involved in the investigation last week, there wasn't a peep out of the Internet concerning a Tesla being involved in an accident in May. And when the crash did hit the news, information was rather sketchy. But is reporting that a lot of new information has finally come out.
New information on fatal crash comes to light
Automotive News on Saturday reported. “There was a portable DVD player in the vehicle,” said Sergeant Kim Montes of the Florida Highway Patrol in a telephone interview. This information is critical to Tesla Motors because it could mean the driver was not paying attention to the road.
This is new information because the initial story, reported in Digital Journal two days ago quoted the truck driver as saying the Tesla driver was "playing Harry Potter on the TV screen." Tesla Motors says it is not possible to watch videos on the Model S touch-screen.
Joshua D. Brown, the Tesla driver who lost his life in the crash, was also a tech-savvy individual. He was very supportive of Tesla Motors and posted numerous videos on social media about his experiences driving a Tesla, including one video showing how his car saved his life when a commercial truck suddenly swerved into his lane.
But back to the scene of the accident. Teslarati is reporting that one witness to the crash, a woman driving along the same highway in the same direction as Brown, claims she was going 85 mph when the Tesla flew by her at a high speed before the crash.
That information was not in the official accident report filed by the Florida State Police. Tesla already knew this, as well as everything else there was to know about the vehicle because they have access to all the data stored in the vehicle's computer system, and without a doubt, they have been studying that data.
One frightening aspect to come out of the accident was that the Tesla's sensors not only failed to detect the tractor-trailer directly in front of it, but the car continued to drive itself for several hundred yards with the roof sheared off before finally coming to a stop in Bobby Vankavelaar's front yard.
Vankavelaar told ABC News the Tesla traveled "hundreds of yards from the point of impact, through a fence into an open field, through another fence and then avoided a bank of trees before being unable to swerve and miss a power pole that eventually stopped the car a few feet away.”
What about the future of autonomous driving technology?
The future for autonomous vehicles is still looking bright, despite the fatal crash, although experts warn that it is not a perfect technology. Analysts say this incident is just a short-term setback, pointing out that 90 percent of vehicle accidents are caused by human error.
We just have to remember that machines can also make mistakes or come across situations they are not designed to handle. believe it or not, but they can't think or make split-second decisions. More to the point, Elon Musk has continued to remind people that the autopilot feature is still only an aid to driving. People still need to keep their minds on the road and their hands on the steering wheel.
Bottom line? Autonomous vehicles are in our future, and driving will become safer. The NHTSA says U.S. traffic deaths rose by 7.7 percent to 35,200 in 2015, the highest increase since 2008. The agency and industry officials also believe that the death toll from vehicle accidents could be reduced drastically with the addition of technology, such as braking systems that use sensors to detect an impending crash and automatically engage the brakes.
In March of this year, 20 automakers agreed to make automatic emergency braking standard on nearly all U.S. vehicles by 2022, an added technology that could prevent thousands of rear-end crashes every year. But this technology is still being perfected. Honda had to recall 50,000 Acura SUVs and cars in June 2015 because of the vehicles engaging the brakes at inopportune times.
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