ROMNEY WORDSWORTH – The infamous distinction for “First Homicide” by a self-driving car goes to Tesla Motors Inc.  On Thursday, June 30th, 2016, a man from Canton Ohio, one Joshua D. Brown, died from blunt trauma force after a high speed collision with first an 18 wheeler tractor trailer, and then a telephone pole.


The immediate cause of the collision was caused by a failure of the robot navigation system to distinguish a white colored tractor trailer from a brightly lit sky, resulting in the car running into, and under, the trailer of the truck that was making a turn across the street, shearing the roof of the Tesla off completely.  The car subsequently came to a sudden stop when it ran into a telephone pole.  I am surprised that Tesla would be relying on a navigation and collision control system that relies exclusively on optics, and optical discrimination software, without a radar collision warning backup, but apparently there was no radar system being used to “ping” solid objects in front of the vehicle.

But that is only part of the story.  Driver negligence is also at play here.  The dead owner of the Tesla, Mr. Brown, was allowing the vehicle to drive at high speed, over the speed limit, and had been engrossed in watching a Harry Potter movie on the vehicle’s large digital screen.

According to assistant chief Danny Wallace of the Williston Fire Department, in an interview to the Associated Press:  “By the time firefighters arrived, the wreckage of the Tesla, with its roof sheared off completely, had come to rest in a nearby yard hundreds of feet from the crash site.”


Tesla, to be fair, cautions drivers that the auto driver is really just a “driver assist device” and that vehicle drivers have to still monitor what the vehicle does and be ready to intervene in the event of a computer error.  But forgetting about the road and settling down to watch a movie instead is, clearly, the allure of so-called self-driving cars.  Maybe Tesla shouldn’t market its vehicles as “Self-Driving Cars” in the first place.  Being able to forget about the chore of driving and leave it to the computer to handle is clearly the dream envisioned by self-driving cars, and many consumers can’t resist living that dream right now, without waiting for better AI systems.

Frank Baressi, 62, the driver of the truck and owner of Okemah Express LLC, said the Tesla driver was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” at the time of the crash and driving so quickly that “he went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him.”

“It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road,” Baressi told The Associated Press in an interview from his home in Palm Harbor, Florida.

Tesla founder Elon Musk expressed “Our condolences for the tragic loss” in a tweet late Thursday.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced it is starting an investigation into the design and performance of the system aboard the Tesla Model S sedan.