The first self-driving car fatality proves nothing | John Naughton

The death of a driver using the Tesla Autopilot function doesn’t show that the technology is unsafe

On Saturday, 7 May, Joshua Brown was driving his Tesla Model S on US 27 in northern Florida. He had the car’s Autopilot technology package switched on. A long, white articulated truck heading in the opposite direction suddenly turned left across the Tesla’s path, heading for a sideroad. Neither the car’s radar or computer-vision systems saw the truck and neither, it seems, did Mr Brown. The Tesla ploughed into – and under – the truck, continued off the road, hit a fence and an electric power pole before coming to a stop. Mr Brown died instantly in the crash.

The Tesla Autopilot is a “public beta” – that is to say it is not finished technology and is still in development, but is deemed good enough to be tried experimentally by many users. The manufacturer emphasises that its Model S “disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled”. When drivers activate it, the acknowledgment box explains that the technology “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. In addition, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” It makes frequent checks to ensure that his or her hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if the driver’s hands are not detected. It then gradually slows the car until they are detected again.

Investigation launched after Tesla driver killed while using autopilot

In the US, about 33,000 people are killed in automobile accidents every year. That’s 90 a day on average. So on 7 May, about 89 other people as well as Joshua Brown were killed in car crashes. But we heard nothing about those 89 personal and family tragedies: the only death that most people in the US heard about was Mr Brown’s.

Why? Because he was driving (or perhaps not driving) a semi-autonomous vehicle. Writing from Detroit (coincidentally, the capital of the traditional gas-guzzling, emission-spewing automobile), two New York Times reporters wrote that “the race by automakers and technology firms to develop self-driving cars has been fuelled by the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers. But that view is now in question after the revelation on Thursday that the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan was killed in an accident when the car was in self-driving mode.”

Really? With whom is the safety of self-driving cars in question? Not with anyone who knows the facts about the dangers of automobiles. According to the US National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, 94% of all accidents in the US are caused by driver (ie human) error. And as Tesla pointed out, there is a fatality every 94m miles in all vehicles in the US (the worldwide figure is about one fatality for every 60m miles driven). Joshua Brown’s death was the first known fatality in the 130m miles where Autopilot was activated in

Tesla cars.

The point here is not that self-driving cars are clearly and unambiguously safer than human-driven ones, only that the data we have so far suggests that they might be. To be sure, as a Rand report argued, we would have to test-drive autonomous vehicles in real traffic, observe their performance and make statistical comparisons to human driver performance. This won’t be easy: “At a minimum,” says Rand, “fully autonomous vehicles would have to be driven hundreds of millions of miles and sometimes hundreds of billions of miles to demonstrate their safety in terms of fatalities and injuries.” And that could take decades, maybe even a century or two.

We clearly haven’t got that long. Even a decade means a further 330,000 avoidable deaths in the US and corresponding numbers in other countries. So at some point fairly soon, societies are going to have to decide what they want to do about automobile safety. It will come down, as these questions usually do, to a cost-benefit analysis: even if we cannot be absolutely sure that autonomous vehicles are safer (and in some cases, as in Joshua Brown’s terrible accident, they do make mistakes), do not the potential benefits outweigh the costs of the current carnage on our roads?

For that kind of discussion to be possible, however, mainstream media will have to change the way they report self-driving cars. Every time a Tesla or a Google car is involved in a crash, by all means report it. But also report all the “human error” crashes that occurred on the same day. It’s not rocket science, just balanced reporting.

Contributor

John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

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