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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > December 2016 > A driverless journey down a dead-end street

A driverless journey down a dead-end street

Self-driving cars are a distraction from a transport policy that puts people first. So who is behind the obsession?

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.

Another of Brown’s videos on YouTube attracted the attention of Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla, prompting Brown to tweet: “@elonmusk noticed my video…I’m in seventh heaven!” The New York Times reported that Brown told a neighbour at the time: “for something to catch Elon Musk’s eye, I can die and go to heaven now.” Brown’s confidence in the autopilot was such that he tested it to the maximum, explaining in one shot, as the car rounded a curve, that “this section in here is going to be very, very difficult for the car to handle.” Ironically, the situation that his car appears to have failed to handle was relatively routine. On a straight section of Florida highway, a truck with a trailer moved across Brown’s path but the sensors on the Tesla seem not to have detected its presence. The car, remarkably, tried to squeeze under the trailer, smashing its windscreen and going on to hit two fences, crossing a field and coming to rest against a pole 30 metres south of the road. It was Brown’s over-confidence in the system that almost certainly killed him. A laptop and portable DVD player were found at the scene, though neither were running when the Florida Highway Patrol arrived. The truck driver Frank Baressi, who rushed up to the wrecked Tesla, claimed that a Harry Potter movie was playing on Brown’s DVD player.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues that Donald Trump was born to be a campaigning demagogue, but will he be too bored to rule? Ed Miliband and Michael Gove debate whether parliament should have a binding vote on the terms of Brexit and Christian Wolmar examines the driverless car delusion. Also in this issue: James Harkin examines the situation in Syria, focussing on Raqqa Ruth Dudley Edwards explores the battle in Ireland since the UK’s decision to leave the EU—will the border become a division? And Michael White looks at the life of Alan Johnson, the Labour MP and former postie.
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