Tesla Self-Driving Car Fatality Was Inevitable, Safety Expert Predicted

Tesla - H 2015
Courtesy of Tesla Motors

"It's a very difficult issue," Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, told THR at this year's CES show.

The first U.S. self-driving car fatality, which took in place in May when the driver of a Tesla Model S using the vehicle's Autopilot semi-automated driving system died in a collision with a truck in Florida, is the focus of an investigation into the design and performance of Tesla's system, the National Highway Traffic Administration announced Thursday. 

But safety officials and automotive executives have long been aware that fatalities with self-driving systems would be inevitable once the systems became widely available.

"Up to now, our industry has measured on-road reliability of autonomous vehicles in the millions of miles, which is impressive," said Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, a $1 billion research lab that, among its initiatives, aims to perfect a car that is incapable of causing a crash. "But to achieve full autonomy, we actually need reliability that is a million times better — we need trillion-mile reliability."

Even with that level of reliability, fatal accidents caused by autonomous cars will occur.

"It's a very difficult issue," Pratt told The Hollywood Reporter. "On the one hand, you want to push the technology out, because overall the technology will save lives" — it's estimated that the 30,000 annual fatalities caused by car accidents in the U.S. would drop 90 percent if autonomous cars were widely adopted.

"But when the safety system is telling you to do less and is taking over [driving] from you, it's a possibility that something may go wrong, too," Pratt said. "Part of what we as a society and we as an industry need to think about very thoroughly, if we manage to drastically lower the accident rate, is how are we going to handle those few cases where something will go wrong."

In the past, Pratt said, the assumption was that machines had to be perfect but humans could be fallible.

"In the future, as the machine does more and more of what the person does now, it will not be as perfect," he said. "We're going to try to make the machine as good as it can possibly be, but as part of this drastic reduction in fatalities and accidents there are still going to be some cases where the car had no choice, and it's important that we as a society come to understand that."

Tesla said on its website Thursday that neither the driver nor the autopilot sensors noticed the white side of the truck's trailer, which was perpendicular to the Model S, against the brightly lit sky, and neither applied the brakes.

"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," the company said.

When Tesla Motors' CEO Elon Musk introduced Autopilot in October last year, he cautioned that the system, which allows Tesla's Model S and Model X to steer themselves and automatically change lanes, was a beta release.

"We're advising drivers to keep their hands on the wheel," said Musk. "You need to be ready to take the wheel at any time."

Competitors developing their own autonomous driving systems questioned Tesla's decision to release Autopilot as a work-in-progress, like a smartphone app.

BMW CEO Harald Kruger told the German newspaper Handelsblatt that "in the app industry, you can launch products on the market that are 70 to 80 percent ready and then complete their development with the customer. That is absolutely impossible with safety features in a car."

Volvo is deep in development of autonomous driving  — it plans to have 100 fully autonomous vehicles on Swedish roads by the end of 2017 — and has said it will indemnify owners of Volvo autonomous cars if the self-driving systems cause an accident. 

"You're building trust," said Tisha Johnson, Volvo's senior director of design for North America, told THR at the Los Angeles Auto Show in October. "When it comes to autonomous driving, we wouldn't put it out unless we were sure it could be done."

The Florida accident is the first known death in over 130 million miles of autopilot operation, Tesla said.