STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This is just one of thousands of auto-related fatalities in 2016. But because it involves what is said to be the technology of the future, the fatal crash of a self-driving car is gaining special attention. Federal investigators are examining what happened to the Tesla electric car in Florida. NPR's Sonari Glinton is covering this story. Hi, Sonari.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: What happened?
GLINTON: Well, the victim was Joshua Brown of Canton, Ohio, and he was killed in Williston, Fla. And he's the owner of a tech company. And what we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway, making a left hand turn in front of the Model S.
And neither the autopilot nor the driver noticed because the white side of the tractor trailer was, you know, didn't contrast enough with the really brightly lit sky. So the brake was not applied. There are also some preliminary reports that say that the driver may have been watching a movie in the center console when this was happening.
INSKEEP: OK. So we're touching on two of the difficulties with this autopilot technology. The first is can it see all the hazards in the road? And the initial information here suggests that maybe the car did not see that. Then the backup for that is supposed to be the driver should notice there's a problem and take control. You're saying that the driver was a little distracted.
GLINTON: Yeah. And that's a - that's a possibility in that the technology, you know, relies on cameras, sensors and radar. So, I mean, if you understand, like, the way this happened, the, you know, the radar that's coming from the car could have likely gone under this, you know, tall tractor trailer. And the camera didn't see because of the contrast.
GLINTON: And there's a sense that these cameras aren't, you know, developed quite enough to be able to, you know, make these real-world decisions.
INSKEEP: Well, what is Tesla saying about what is the first fatality, right, involving a self-driving car?
GLINTON: Well, the company put out a statement saying that Brown, who was an advocate of Tesla's, that, saying, quote, that "he was a friend to Tesla and the broader EV community." And earlier in the statement, though, the company points out that this was the first accident. And then when drivers - and also they say that when drivers activate autopilot, they have to acknowledge that, among other things, it's an assist feature and it requires you to keep your hands on the wheel and steering at all times.
You have to remain in control. And before you engage, it pops up and says that. And but - and also, in a way, this accident seems inevitable because, you know, I have watched many, many videos on YouTube of Tesla drivers engaging the autopilot feature and, you know, not behaving responsibly.
INSKEEP: Sonari, I'm not sure that people quite realize that there are Tesla cars or other kinds of cars self-driving all over the country at this point. You hear about test drives, but are there multiple, multiple cars out there on the highways now?
GLINTON: Well, I mean, these are features. These are not self-driving cars. They are features in the cars that are supposed to assist the driver right now.
INSKEEP: OK. So it's not quite self-driving. It's on the way to that. Now, is this going to be a setback for the idea of the driverless car?
GLINTON: Well, you know - you know, people are afraid of driverless cars and - but, you know, there was also a time when people were afraid of riding in elevators. But before automated elevators many people died in elevators and now that's a rarity. But, you know, when we - when we look at the recall crisis, when we look at, you know, a major, you know, auto company being caught lying to consumers...
INSKEEP: VW, yeah.
GLINTON: ...It doesn't - Volkswagen, yes. It doesn't help the public to have faith in the industry. And, you know, the car companies, new and old, have a lot of work to do to convince the American people about this technology, which we really understand could save lives.
INSKEEP: Sonari, thanks very much.
GLINTON: It's always a pleasure, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sonari Glinton, who is our business correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.