Although reports suggest that the circumstances that killed a Tesla Model S driver while he was using the Autopilot feature were “extremely rare,” this has sparked discussion as to whether self-driving cars are safer than human-operated cars, or if they may, in fact, be more dangerous.
On Thursday, Tesla and the U.S. government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed that a preliminary investigation on the death of Model S owner Joshua Brown is now underway. The agency will see if Brown’s use of the Autopilot feature had satisfactorily met general expectations; the 40-year-old ex-Navy SEAL had reportedly used the feature quite often prior to the crash, which took place on May 8 in Florida.
A look at Brown’s YouTube account (“NexuJosh”) offers evidence of how often he had used Autopilot on his Model S. In here, all but two of his 26 videos are devoted to the feature, with one video entitled “Autopilot Saves Model S” having accumulated over 2.1 million views. In that video, he shows how his Tesla’s self-driving capabilities had prevented it from getting sideswiped by a larger truck.
Still, Tesla has always warned drivers to be prudent when using Autopilot, and to always have their hands behind the wheel and take over driving if needed.
In a prepared statement, Tesla defended Autopilot’s self-driving functions, saying that it does what it could to make sure drivers have their hands on the wheel, and that it makes cars slow down until hands-on driving is detected again.
“Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to stay alert,” the automaker added. “Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.”