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Tesla driver's death on 'Autopilot' triggers safety debate

© Robyn Beck, AFP | Joshua Brown drove a Tesla model S like this one when he was involved in a fatal crash on May 7, 2016

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-07-02

A digital video disc player was found in the Tesla car that was on autopilot when its driver was killed in a May 7 collision with a truck, Florida Highway Patrol officials said on Friday.

Whether the portable DVD player was operating at the time of the crash has not been determined, however, and witnesses who came upon the wreckage of the 2015 Model S sedan gave differing accounts on Friday about whether the player was showing a movie.

As the first known fatality involving a car in self-driving mode, the accident is stoking the debate on whether drivers are being lulled into a false sense of security by autopilot car technology.

Questions of why the car did not stop for a turning truck, and whether the victim, Joshua Brown, was watching the road are critical for Tesla Motors Inc. The Palo Alto luxury electric car maker is facing a preliminary inquiry by federal regulators over the safety of the Model S Autopilot system that was engaged at the time of the crash in Williston, Florida.

Officials say it could be weeks if not months before they make a final determination of the cause of the crash.

A man who lives on the property where Brown's car came to rest some 900 feet from the intersection where the crash occurred said when he approached the wreckage 15 minutes after the crash, he could hear the DVD player. An FHP trooper on the scene told the property owner, Robert VanKavelaar, that a "Harry Potter" movie was showing on the DVD player, VanKavelaar told Reuters on Friday.

Another witness, Terence Mulligan, said he arrived at the scene before the first Florida state trooper and found "there was no movie playing".

"There was no music. I was at the car. Right at the car," Mulligan told Reuters on Friday.

Sergeant Kim Montes of the Florida Highway Patrol said on Friday that "there was a portable DVD player in the vehicle", but wouldn't elaborate further on it. She also said there was no camera found, mounted on the dash or of any kind, in the wreckage.

Car roof sheared off

Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, was the lone occupant of the Tesla and was killed in the crash that sheared off the roof of the car. He was a Tesla enthusiast and a former Navy SEAL who ran a technology company, according to his family and his company's website.

Mulligan said he was driving in the same westbound direction as the truck before it attempted to make a left turn across the eastbound lanes of US Highway 27 Alternate when he spotted the Tesla traveling east.

Mulligan said the Tesla did not appear to be speeding on the road, which has a speed limit of 65 miles per hour, according to the FHP.

But the car never slowed down, and the remainder of the car, without a roof, kept the same speed after going under the trailer, Mulligan said.

Lawyers for Brown's family released a statement Friday saying the family is cooperating with the investigations "and hopes that information learned from this tragedy will trigger further innovation which enhances the safety of everyone on the
roadways".

The statement describes the accident as having been "caused by a semi tractor-trailer which crossed a divided highway and caused the fatal collision with Josh's Tesla".

No citations have been issued, but the initial accident report from the FHP indicates the truck driver "failed to yield right-of-way".

Autopilot system not autonomous

The Tesla Autopilot system allows the car to keep itself in a lane, maintain speed and operate for a limited time without a driver doing the steering.

Tesla said in a statement Friday, Autopilot "does not turn a Tesla into an autonomous vehicle and does not allow the driver to abdicate responsibility".

Tesla said on Thursday that the white trailer was not easy for the car's cameras to distinguish from the bright Florida sky, an FHP report said the crash occurred on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Tesla shares fell Thursday after the fatality was disclosed, but rebounded to close up nearly 2 per cent in trading Friday.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)

Date created : 2016-07-02

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