Tesla’s Fatal Crash: 6 Unanswered Questions

MADISON, Wis.—Two months after a Tesla’s Model S on Autopilot mode killed a driver, the fatal crash still has many automotive industry experts wondering what exactly happened and why the self-driving system failed.

Of course, the accident was a surprisingly well-kept secret until last week. This delay begs the questions of when Tesla knew, and why did the firm, together with the federal agency, wait nearly two months to give the tragedy its due publicity.

Although Tesla learned about the May 7 crash in Florida “shortly” afterward, it did not disclose it to the government until May 16. It was June 30 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announce its probe into the fatality.

Separately, it’s been revealed that there was another Tesla crash on July 1, involving a Model X that rolled over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. NHTSA just announced on Wednesday (July 6) that it’s investigating the Pennsylvania accident to determine if automated functions were involved.

More questions than answers
Without Tesla’s full disclosure and results from NHTSA investigations, nobody can say for sure what caused the fatal crash on May 7.

Several automotive experts reached by EE Times are coming up with more questions than answers. Among their questions:

  • Which part of Tesla’s autopilot system failed to recognize the imminent danger of a white trailer truck? CMOS image sensor, radar, vision processor?
  • How is Tesla’s Autopilot system designed to interpret sensory data?
  • Which hardware was responsible for sensor fusion?
  • Who wrote the sensor fusion algorithms – determining which data over-rides another, and what happens when contradictory information comes from different sensors?
  • More specifically, how did Tesla integrate Mobileye’s EyeQ3 vision processor into their Automatic Emergency (AEB) system?
  • Algorithms perception systems are getting pretty good. But how far along has the automotive industry come with algorithms for motion planning?
  • There are many corner cases (like the Tesla case) that are almost impossible to test. Considering the infinite number of potential scenarios that could lead to a crash, how does the car industry plan to meet the challenge of modeling, simulation, test and validation?

It’s premature to point a finger at any specific technology failure as the culprit. But it’s time for the automotive industry — technology suppliers, tier ones and car OEMs – to start discussing the limitations of driving on autopilot.

This was suggested by Amnon Shashua, Mobileye's co-founder, CTO and chairman.  He said during the BMW/Mobileye/Intel press conference last Friday: “Companies need to be very transparent about limitations of the system. It’s not enough to tell the drivers to be alert, it needs to tell them why they need to be alert.”

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