Why a Fatal Autonomous Tesla Crash Doesn’t Mean Smart Cars Aren’t Safe

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On Thursday, Tesla announced the first fatal car crash to involve an autonomous car in the United States.

Former Navy SEAL and technology entrepreneur Joshua Brown was driving in Florida with his Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode when it hit a tractor-trailer after the system failed to detect the tractor-trailer turning in front of the car.

Brown often shared YouTube videos of his drives taken while his Tesla engaged in autonomous Autopilot mode. Just last month, he posted a video that captured a similar situation that nearly resulted in a crash when a truck tried to cut him off on an exit ramp, but the Autopilot feature allowed the Tesla to swerve and avoid any collision. After that incident, Brown had praised Tesla for the impressive, and well-functioning, technology.

The fatal crash has opened a formal investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and details are beginning to come to light. The AP reports that "by the time firefighters arrived, the Tesla wreckage — with its roof sheared off — had come to rest in a yard hundreds of feet from the crash site." For the car to hit a tractor-trailer and continue its momentum for hundreds of feet indicates a high rate of speed, even after the initial collision. This is due to Autopilot continuing to accelerate after the crash happened.

However, the conditions of the situation were very unusual. "Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied," Tesla said in a statement on its corporate site. "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, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S."

Despite the scary circumstances of Brown’s crash, autonomous technology has proved to be a safe and smart way to travel since the release of Autopilot last October. In that time, vehicles using Autopilot have traveled more than 130 million miles, according to Tesla's data logs, with this being the first, and only, fatal crash.

Smart cars, combined with attentive drivers, are the safest mode of transportation on the road, according to Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. While people like to think of an autonomous car as a tool for multitasking, it's really a tool for safety, and it’s important for drivers to stay alert to experience the full benefits of the technology.