Just over a year ago, Joshua Brown, a former Navy SEAL, was driving his Tesla Model S on a Florida highway when his car collided with a tractor trailer crossing the road at an intersection. The top of Brown’s car was sheared off by the bottom of the trailer and he was killed. The National Transportation Safety Board has now completed its investigation into the collision. It concludes that Brown ignored up to 7 notifications from the car’s computer to place his hands on the wheel prior to the incident.
In its 500 page final report, NTSB says that during the 37 minute period just prior to the collision, Brown had his hands on the steering wheel for only a total of 25 seconds. 7 visual warnings saying “Hands Required Not Detected” appeared on the dashboard in front of Brown. In addition, 6 audible warnings were activated. The report says the last time Brown touched the controls of the car occurred about 2 minutes prior to the fatal accident when he set the cruise control to 75 mph. The posted speed limit on the highway was 65.
This Changes Everything
Brown’s death caused dramatic changes in how the world looked at autonomous driving systems. Later in 2106, a German government official called on Tesla to deactivate its Autopilot system, calling it a hazard to other drivers. Consumer Reports echoed that sentiment.
MobilEye, the Israeli company that supplied the camera used in the Autopilot system, got into a messy battle with Tesla that led both companies to sever their business relationship. Tesla went back to the drawing board and total revised its Autopilot hardware and software. Where previously the camera was the primary source of input, Tesla decided to make radar primary with the camera merely providing confirmatory information to the Autopilot computer.
The new system requires far more computing power, so Tesla partnered with Nvidia on a new liquid cooled supercomputer capable of processing 40 times as much data input. The new system is so sophisticated, it can actually bounce radar signals under a vehicle ahead and “see” what is happening on the road ahead. That gives it the ability to anticipate slower traffic even if the vehicle immediately in front blocks a driver’s vision of the road ahead.
Tesla Adds “The Red Hands Of Death”
Tesla Inc spokesperson Keely Sulprizio declined to a request from Reuters to comment on the NTSB report. Jack Landskroner, attorney for the Brown family said in an email the report should put to rest reports that Brown was watching a video at the time of the collision. The family has not taken any legal action against Tesla and is reviewing the NTSB report. In January, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had found no evidence of defects in the Autopilot system following Brown’s death.
Last September, Tesla updated its Autopilot software to make its warnings to drivers more prominent, including a “red hands of death” graphic that appears on the display in front of the driver. If the driver ignores such warnings now, the system will turn off and will not reactivate until the car is brought to a stop.
The NTSB report said the agency was required to rely on data supplied by the company because the Model S uses a proprietary system to record a vehicle’s speed and other data. Authorities cannot access that data with the commercial tools used to access data recorders used in most other cars.