Here's What We Know about Tesla's First Fatal Crash

Tesla announced it’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system was involved in its first deadly crash on May 7, 2016. This marks the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle. However, this tragedy should not hinder progress.


Tesla announced it’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system was involved in its first deadly crash on May 7, 2016. This marks the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle. However, this tragedy should not hinder progress.

What everyone wants to know is how did this happen and why it happened. Here’s what we know: Put simply, a Tesla Model S failed to see an oncoming threat. The vehicle was driving down a highway with the Autopilot system engaged, while a tractor-trailer was driving across the highway; perpendicular to the Model S. But against the bright sky, the Model S’s camera could not see the white side of the tractor-tailor. 

“The MobilEye is the vision sensor used by the Tesla to power the autopilot, and the failure to detect the truck in this situation is a not-unexpected result for the sensor,” Brad Templeton, who has been a consultant on Google’s team designing a driverless car, explained in post about the incident. “It is also worth noting that the camera they use sees only red and gray intensity, it does not see all the colors, making it have an even harder time with the white truck and bright sky. The sun was not a factor, it was up high in the sky.”

Templeton also points out that had the car been equipped with LIDAR rather than a camera, the Autopilot system would have had no issue detecting the truck in this scenario.

It’s also presumed the driver, Joshua Brown, who died in the crash, was not paying attention. Frank Baressi, the man driving the tractor-trailer, told the AP he heard the movie Harry Potter playing from Brown’s car at the time of the crash.

“The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S,” Tesla wrote in a blog post.

Despite Tesla’s Autopilot feature being an “assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” according to the disclaimer before it’s enabled, many people have been reckless with this system, treating it as a substitute for driving.

Tesla is learning what Google learned years ago: The company found early on in testing that even with a disclaimer, people would still become inattentive drivers. It’s one of the reasons why Google says it won’t release a semi-autonomous beta car to the public—it has to be able to be fully autonomous.

Joshua Brown’s death is a tragedy, and there are going to have more days like May 7. When Google’s autonomous car was involved in its own accident earlier this year, Chris Urmson, head of Google's autonomous cars, told an audience at SXSW, “We’re going to have another day like our Valentine’s Day [accident], and we’re going to have worse days than that. I know that the net benefit will be better for society.” One bump every 1.4 million miles in a Google car is certainly better than 38,000 deaths from car accidents every year. Likewise, according to Tesla, its Autopilot system drove 130 million miles before it’s May fatality, while human drivers in the USA have a car fatality every 94 million miles. However, Google’s crash happened because the software made an incorrect assumption. Tesla’s crash occurred because the equipment wasn’t capable of detecting the threat ahead. 

However, there are many, many recorded occasions where drivers have avoided a potentially fatal incident because of Tesla’s Autopilot system.

So, what happens now?

The NHTSA is currently doing a preliminary evaluation, which will examine whether the system was working according to expectations when the Model S crashed. Tesla admits it’s Autopilot system isn’t perfect, which is why it requires the driver to remain alert; this system is a high-end kind of cruise control, not an autonomous car.

This incident brings up questions of fault that have not been considered before. You can’t punish a machine, even so, the Model S’s camera wasn’t capable of detecting the truck ahead. When autonomous vehicles do take over, Jerry Kaplan, who teaches Impact of Artificial Intelligence in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University, points out, We’re going to need new kinds of laws that deal with the consequences of well-intentioned autonomous actions that robots take.”

***

Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Staff

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

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  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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