Self-driving cars are a distraction from a transport policy that puts people first. So who is behind the obsession?by Christian Wolmar / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
On 7th May this year, Joshua Brown left a family trip to Disney World, Florida. He was heading back to his home in Ohio when his car struck the trailer section of a truck. He was found dead at the scene. At first, it seemed there was nothing unusual about the accident—just one road death among the 38,000 that occur in the United States every year. Investigators found that the truck had been pulling out of a side turning on Highway 27. They assumed that one of the drivers was at fault. However, several weeks later, when the details emerged, it became clear that Brown’s death was anything but a routine motoring accident.
Quite the opposite. The car involved, an electric Tesla Model S, was in autopilot mode at the time of the crash. The incident is thought to be the first time that self-driving technology has caused a fatality. Brown, a 40-year-old former member of the US Navy Seals, loved his Tesla, especially its self-driving features, which he saw as the future of transport. In this he is no different from the many political and business leaders who have high hopes that this technology will solve myriad social problems, from the shortage of urban land for homes to air pollution. Brown, however, went so far as to give his car a pet name: Tessy.
According to the manufacturer, the Tesla S model’s autopilot feature “allows Model S to steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control. Digital control of motors, brakes and steering helps avoid collisions from the front and sides, as well as preventing the car from wandering off the road.”
Brown had enthused about how Tessy would take over the driving on highways while he relaxed, looking at the passing scenery as if he were on a train, or even watching DVDs on a portable player. He was such an enthusiast for Tesla that he posted numerous videos of his driving experiences. One shows how he narrowly avoided an accident when a white truck cut across in front of his car, alerting him of the need to take control.