First Self-Driving Death

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By David Peel

It’s now been about five years since the grotesque death in Florida that was reported as the first self-driving death in the US. The NTSB conducted a thorough review of the facts of this crash.

Back on May 7, 2016, a 2015 Tesla Model S 70D car, traveling eastbound on US Highway 27A in Florida, struck the right side of a semitrailer, as it was making a left turn across its path. The impact with the underside of the semitrailer sheared off the car’s roof and decapitated the driver. 

Overall, the car then traveled about 910 feet after striking the semitrailer. 

System performance data downloaded from the Tesla indicated that the driver was operating the car using features of its Autopilot suite: Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC) and the Autosteer lane-keeping system. “Autopilot” is a proprietary name used by Tesla for a combination of vehicle automation systems that provide driver assistance. The car was also equipped with a forward collision warning (FCW) system and automatic emergency braking (AEB), but those systems did not activate. System performance data indicated that the vehicle speed just before impact with the semitrailer was 74 mph. The highway has a posted speed limit of 65 mph.

Ultimately, Vehicle performance data showed that for the 41-minute trip Autopilot was active for 37 minutes. During the trip, while Autopilot was in use, the system detected driver-applied torque on the steering wheel on seven different occasions for a total of 25 seconds. The longest period between alerts during which Autopilot did not detect the driver’s hands on the steering wheel was nearly 6 minutes. 

Effectively, the truck’s failure to yield put the driver of the car in a position to have to slow down.

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There is no evidence that he ever saw the light colored truck against the white car. And it is certain that the car never saw it.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for the good old duty to keep proper lookout. And for tractor trailers to follow federal law by never putting a car in position to have to slow down as a result of their actions. 

Peel seeks justice for those injured in tractor trailer and car accidents, medical malpractice, and disability. He often addresses churches, clubs and groups without charge. Peel may be reached through PeelLawFirm.com wherein other articles may be accessed.