Sunday 10 July 2016

Man killed in Driverless Car Crash

There has been a road traffic accident involving an autonomous vehicle that has resulted in a fatality. The events happened in Florida USA two months ago and involved a Tesla Model S Autopilot, an all-electric hatchback car which can be driven in either fully manual, semi-autonomous or fully autonomous mode; the last two only being available on certain roads. It was on one of these roads that the incident happened and the car was in its fully autonomous "Autopilot" mode. The car collided with a lorry which joined the road from a slipway in front of it. The automatic system did not apply the brakes when it should have because the camera didn't recognize the lorry. This was because the lorry was the same colour as the sunlit sky; a mistake no human driver would make. The car struck the lorry from behind and the sole occupant, Joshua Brown, was killed. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration- the NHTSA, is investigating; but the car's designer, Elon Musk, has defended Tesla Motors' product (I must stress that, apart from the name, the car manufacturing company Tesla is not in any way connected to the great scientist and free energy inventor Nikola Tesla). Musk has pointed out that driving a conventional car with no automation has always been far from safe. Human drivers can get drunk, fall asleep and lose their tempers where automatic systems can't. In fact on average a human driver dies for every ninety-four million collective road miles. This is the first fatal accident ever in an autonomous car and they have currently clocked up about a hundred and thirty million miles. Nevertheless I would ask Musk how many of those miles were not from experimental runs with trained test drivers. Driverless car technology is still quite rare and exclusive; it is still in development. In this case the driver also allegedly breached a safety precaution. Tesla advises users to keep their hands on the steering wheel even when driving on fully autonomous mode, just in case there is a computer failure. Mr Brown apparently did not do this. Tesla and the rest of the industry are currently reassessing their safety features. Some commentators have dwelled on the fact that Joshua Brown was a Navy SEAL, a member of an American special forces unit; and they wonder if Tesla are involved with the government to test the driverless system's potential military applications. This is possible, but perhaps Brown's occupation was just coincidental. The concept of a car that can drive itself dates back almost a century, but it is only in the last few years that anything approaching practical development has been possible. The biggest obstacle has of course been safety, and many critics of driverless cars have long predicted an accident like the one described here. My own criticism of driverless or semi-autonomous motor vehicles is very different and I describe my position in detail in the background links below. I'm not only concerned about accidents but also the effect it would have on freedom of transport within society.

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