Autonomous Car Crashes with Stationary Vehicles Suggest that Systems Must be Improved
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Autonomous Car Crashes with Stationary Vehicles Suggest that Systems Must be Improved

Tuesday, August 14, 2018By Nina Shapirshteyn

Another crash between a Tesla in autopilot mode and a stationary vehicle underscores one of the limitation of cars driving in semi-autonomous mode. In May, a Tesla Model S traveling about 60 mph crashed into a fire truck that was stopped at a red light in South Jordan, Utah. The driver stated that the car was in autopilot mode and the brakes were not activated in time to avoid the impact. Just several days later, a Tesla vehicle in autopilot mode crashed into a standing police vehicle in Laguna Beach, California. In that collision, the driver sustained injuries and the police car was destroyed. In January, a similar accident occurred when a Tesla model S crashed into a stationary fire truck on a highway in Los Angeles County.

Autonomous cars have significant difficulty detecting vehicles in stationary mode. The problem is that the autopilot feature is designed to avoid slamming on the brakes when not warranted. These cars have sensors that are able to detect other cars as well as stationary objects on the road. The system must be programmed to identify moving objects so it does not hit the brakes each time an object that is stationary is identified. Ideally, cars with autopilot features should be outfitted with multiple sensor types, such as lidar, that can produce a high-resolution image of the environment in front of it. Many experts believe that these type of advancements, though costly, are necessary to remedy this problem.

Various car manufacturers have acknowledged that their vehicles have difficulty identifying non-moving objects. Tesla’s manual states that its autopilot feature “cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles or objects, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph.” Similarly, Volvo’s semi-autonomous system may “ignore the stationary vehicle and instead accelerate to the stored speed.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) initiated an investigation into the Tesla crash in Utah. Two other similar incidents involving Tesla cars are being investigated by federal authorities. Tesla has reiterated that drivers are required to maintain control of the steering wheel when the car is in autopilot mode.

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