The sad case of the first fatal crash attributed to an autopilot car has come to light in the USA, and important questions for the automotive industry are already being raised. The media is reporting that the sensors equipped on the Tesla Model S failed to detect a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway, and consequently drove under the trailer. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an enquiry, but it is already expected that the accident will have a significant impact on consumer trust in autonomous cars.
The industry is now faced with answering a number of key questions:
- Was the accident caused by a sensor that malfunctioned, or a sensor that was not capable of reliably detecting the truck, or a threat assessment error?
- Is this a Tesla-specific issue, or are systems offered by other brands also vulnerable to the same issue?
- Did Tesla’s aggressive marketing of the AutoPilot feature lead to a false sense of confidence by the driver?
It is difficult to speculate at this stage about the driver’s role in the crash, although many in the industry have been uncomfortable with the way in which Tesla describes their Autopilot feature. From a technical perspective, however, we know from our research that there are a number of reasons why the radar sensor did not detect the truck.
Due to the narrow field of vertical view that current sensors operate at, it is likely that the car detected the truck at a long distance ahead. But as the car got closer the sensor may have misconstrued the large gap between the road and the base of the tall truck, and therefore assumed there was no longer an obstruction on the road. The forward-facing camera fitted on the car may have also struggled to detect the truck with a high level of confidence, leading to an incorrect collision risk assessment.
If these were indeed the root causes of the accident, then many other cars that offer Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) and use similar technologies will also be vulnerable to the same scenario. In the longer-term, the combination of multiple types of sensors will help address these issues. But to avoid the same kind of tragedies occurring in the short-term, car manufacturers will need to show restraint when marketing ADAS features to consumers and continually remind them that they are in charge while on the road – not their car.