Joshua D. Brown becomes first known Tesla self-driving death while using the 'Autopilot' system.

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Tesla Self-Driving Death Investigated by Government
Joshua D. Brown becomes first known Tesla self-driving death while using the 'Autopilot' system.

— A Tesla self-driving death is the first to be associated with the automaker's self-driving mode called "Autopilot."

Killed in the May 7 Florida crash was Joshua D. Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, when his 2015 Tesla Model S reportedly was traveling in Autopilot and didn't "see" the white side of a tractor-trailer that was making a turn.

In self-driving mode, the cameras on the car allegedly couldn't tell the difference between the side of the tractor-trailer and the bright sky, something that should have caused the automatic braking to kick in. In addition, Brown apparently didn't see the truck and trailer because he did nothing to stop the car.

Mr. Brown's obituary says he was a Navy SEAL for 11 years and founded a company that worked on Internet and camera systems.

Investigators say the Model S went under the tractor-trailer, sheering off the entire roof of the car. After taking off the roof, the car exited the other side of the trailer, went off the road and through two fences before finally hitting a utility pole. Brown was pronounced dead at the scene.

The truck driver, Frank Baressi, 62, told reporters he could hear a Harry Potter movie playing when the crash occurred and could still hear it when the Model S slammed into the utility pole. Baressi said he didn't see a video screen but the Florida Highway Patrol confirmed a portable DVD player was found in the wreckage.

Tesla says if the car would have hit the front or rear of the trailer, the crash safety system would have likely prevented any serious injuries.

The automaker also reiterates how a Model S driver should use the Autopilot system, primarily by keeping their hands on the steering wheel at all times. To most consumers this seems like a contradictory use of the word "Autopilot," but drivers are warned by the car they should “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.”

Tesla says the system should be used only as an "assist feature," which is why the car will provide audible and visual warnings if the system catches the driver without their hands on the wheel. The Autopilot system "makes frequent checks" to verify a driver's hands are on the wheel and the system will gradually slow down the car until it detects the driver touching the steering wheel.

Tesla also says the Autopilot feature is disabled by default and a driver must acknowledge the technology is new and still being tested before the driver can enable the feature.

In a statement released after the death of Mr. Brown, the automaker said Autopilot is getting better all the time but it's not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert and keep their hands on the wheel.

The crash and death caused the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to open an investigation into 25,000 model year 2015 Model S cars to examine the "design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash."

Mr. Brown had originally praised Tesla's Autopilot system after crediting the technology for preventing a crash when a truck swerved into his lane on a busy highway. In the description of his YouTube video (below), Brown said the Model S was the best car he ever owned.

"I have done a lot of testing with the sensors in the car and the software capabilities. I have always been impressed with the car, but I had not tested the car's side collision avoidance. I am VERY impressed. Excellent job Elon!"


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