Joshua Brown, the Tesla owner who died on May 7 in the first fatal crash involving a self-driving vehicle, was reportedly watching a Harry Potter movie when he died.
The Associated Press interviewed Frank Baressi, the truck driver whose tractor-trailer Brown's Tesla Model S collided with on a Florida highway. According to Tesla, the car's cameras were unable to differentiate the white side of the trailer from the brightly-lit sky, and didn't know to brake. Via the AP:
[Baressi] 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. He acknowledged he couldn't see the movie, only heard it.
Tesla says it's not possible to watch videos on the touch screen of a Model S, so Brown would have been watching on a separate device, like a phone or a tablet.
If the Harry Potter story is legit, it seems inevitable. As Tesla noted on its blog in the wake of the crash, activating autopilot requires the driver to check a box acknowledging that is an "assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times." Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to, “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.”
That's great advice, but people are obstinate. An acknowledgment box for autopilot is just another set of terms and conditions to ignore, except in the case of self-driving cars a lot more is at stake than with other technologies. If you give someone an autopilot, odds are they're gonna take their hands, and more importantly their attention, off the wheel.
Tesla seems pretty insulated from legal responsibility here, given the many warnings built into the system. But there are ethical questions around the foreseeability of this happening. Given how much people love watching television, it was very predictable that people with self-driving cars are going to take their eyes off the road to binge-watch their favorite show or movie.
This news raises red flags about the level of readiness for the road these cars have, even if this is just their "public beta." That's why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting a preliminary investigation into the autopilot functions of the Tesla Model S, 25,000 of which are on the road in the U.S.
Brown, who was 40 when he died, was an avid Tesla fan and appears to have been something of a thrill seeker. According to the AP, he had received eight speeding tickets over six years. His Facebook page includes photos of him skydiving and motorbiking in the mud. In April, Brown posted a video of his Model S's autopilot narrowly averting a crash; when Tesla founder Elon Musk tweeted the video it racked up over a million views.
Sadly, the car failed to save him from a collision the next month.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org