Tesla Autopilot Fatality Raises Concerns Over Limitations of Current Systems

The fatal crash in May of the Tesla Model S and its Autopilot system have raised concerns over limitations of current automated driving systems.

Tesla’s Autopilot system comes with cameras and radar, but not Lidar, a sensor that uses laser. Tesla said its system would have had trouble distinguishing a white semi-trailer positioned across a road against a bright sky, which caused the fatal crash. Concerns raised by the first reported fatality in a semi-autonomous car are expected to speed adoption of more sensitive and safe autonomous vehicle systems, investors and analysts said.

Goldman Sachs forecasts the market for advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles will grow from about $3 billion last year to $96 billion in 2025 and $290 billion in 2035. Over the next 20 years, more than half that revenue will come from radar, cameras, and Lidar, Goldman estimates. These technologies are considered essential for producing fully autonomous and safe vehicles.

“As we move to a higher level of autonomy in vehicles, you’re going to want to have more redundancy,” which radar and Lidar can provide, said Dan Galves, senior vice president at vision safety system maker Mobileye. “The more sensors, the better.”

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Semi-automated systems such as General Motor’s SuperCruise and Traffic Jam Pilot from Audi are due on the market in 2017-2018. Ford expects to deploy a semi-automated system, using Velodyne Lidar, in 2018. Toyota is investing more than $1 billion in such self-driving technologies as robotics and artificial intelligence.

Regulation and litigation are two big wild cards for autonomous vehicle technologies. Safety regulators and industry executives expect drastically reduce traffic fatalities. Regulators are also concerned that drivers could be lulled into unsafe behavior by systems that take control for a time, but expect human operators to re-take command in an emergency.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the role of Autopilot in the Florida accident and another crash in Pennsylvania involving a Tesla vehicle. The agency also is expected to roll out broad guidelines for deploying autonomous vehicle technology in the near future.