The tragic case of Joshua Brown is not the only accident in autonomous vehicle history. There was a case in the Netherlands and least a couple more elsewhere. But the Joshua Brown case is, by some way, the most notorious and will remain so in automotive perpetuity. This is so because it was a Tesla Model S (semi-autonomous, in autopilot mode), because Brown was an avid fan of the technology and because, according to uncorroborated reports, he was watching a Harry Potter movie on an iPad at the time.
For anyone unfamiliar with it, the accident occurred in May 2016, on US Highway 27 in Florida. A tractor-trailer turned across the path of the oncoming Tesla, which duly drove under the trailer, killing Brown instantly. Already much debated, many more column inches were written and more website real estate was consumed after the National Highway Traffic Safety Authority released its report in January of this year. This confirmed that neither driver nor car provided any braking or steering input, despite estimates that Brown had up to seven seconds to see and react to the danger. In fact, in 37 minutes of driving, Brown had his hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds, and his last input was to set the cruise control at 74mph (120km/h) – in a 65mph (105km/h) speed limit zone. As an aside, it can safely be assumed that car makers will no longer be able to configure autonomous cars with the ability to exceed the speed limit in autopilot mode.
So many factors, so much to debate. Yet for me there is an extra component, which is arguably the root cause. That is the operating environment. From now, and for about 20 years depending on which estimate you believe, we shall have mixed traffic species on our roads. Some conventional vehicles, some autonomous vehicles with different levels of autonomy, some in autopilot mode, others not, and sundry categories such as bicycles. These traffic species will all cohabit the same roads.
At The Future of Transportation World Conference in Cologne this past July, I spoke about this and called it the Hiatus Highway. It is neither fully antiquated nor fully evolved.
This is precisely what sealed the fate of Joshua Brown. The Florida Highway Patrol investigation alluded to it when reporting that Brown “failed to observe” the truck and the truck driver “failed to observe” the Tesla. But there’s more. The two vehicles also “failed to observe” each other – the Tesla for allegedly technological reasons (it was only in beta) and the truck because it wasn’t an autonomous vehicle. If both vehicles had been fully autonomous, the truck would have ‘observed’ the Tesla sedan and not pulled across its path. Eventually we shall have ‘autonomous only’ highways on which this accident could not happen because CAV (connected and autonomous vehicle) technology would enable all traffic to seamlessly ‘observe’ each other. Until then, we shall have hiatus highways.