Weekly Brief: Tesla’s ‘killer robot’ raises fears for driverless tech

He was watching Harry Potter. That’s the eerie, almost cartoonish detail that automakers now must answer to in the wake of the first deadly accident involving a robot driven car.

On May 7, 2016, a 40-year-old American named Joshua Brown was driving his Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode down a divided highway in Williston, Florida. According to the carmaker, when a tractor trailer turned out across the highway, the system didn’t detect it because of the white of the truck’s siding against a brightly lit sky. As for Brown, reports suggest that his eyes were trained on a Harry Potter movie on a portable DVD player. “It was still playing when he died and [the car] snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road,” the driver of the truck told Associated Press.

Where to begin. It’s a PR disaster, for one. Tesla has released data suggesting that this is the first deadly accident in roughly 130M miles driven for Autopilot, whereas the standard ratio for driver fatalities among all cars in the US is one per 94M miles driven. Also, it argues that Autopilot is clearly labelled as a driver-assistance system that requires humans to keep their hands on the wheels and their minds engaged in the act of driving.

Fair enough but does the presence of these technologies inherently lessen a driver’s attention to the task at hand, so much so that they feel comfortable popping on Harry Potter? And if so, how can we allow these technologies to be present unless they are as close to infallible as possible (i.e. capable of picking out a big-rig, no matter what its colour or the brightness of the sky, when it goes to turn across a lane)?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent specialists to the scene of the crash and announced last week that it has opened a formal investigation into the accident. NHTSA is expected to release guidelines for self-driving cars this month, an action that takes on greater import in light of these events.

In other news, BMW became one of the biggest automakers yet to promise a self-driving car — and soon. The German powerhouse promises to have its model on the road by 2021. Dubbed the BMW iNEXT, the car will be the product of a partnership between BMW,Intel and Mobileye (who provides its sensor technology for Tesla’s Autopilot feature). The three plan to make their end product an open platform that other carmakers can license.

Volkswagen agreed to pay $15Bn (£11.3Bn) for installing software that concealed how much its diesel cars actually polluted the environment. The cash will be split three ways, with $2Bn going to promote zero-emission electric vehicles. $3Bn will go toward curbing noxious emissions from other sources, and the biggest chunk, $10Bn, will go toward buying back or replacing vehicles from drivers who were duped in the first place. However, VW is so far rejecting any similar compensation packages in Europe markets where it sold many more vehicles infected with defeat devices. Shame on you, VW.

The more sensors we put into cars, the more data that we can gather and process in real-time to inform cars about their surroundings. That’s in theory anyway. In reality, what data that is gathered in the cloud comes in a dizzying array of formats due to each brand using a different standard. Enter SENSORIS, a universal data format for vehicle-to-cloud data created by mapping company HERE. Last week HERE submitted a final design for the format to European transport body ERTICO. Eleven major suppliers, from Continental to Elektrobit to HARMAN to TomTom, are onboard.

Chevrolet chopped the pricing of its 4G LTE data package in half, down from $40 to $20 per month. The company says that more than 60% of Suburban owners and passengers use their OnStar 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, with Tahoe and Traverse hotspot usage not far behind. The hotspots allow users to connect up to seven devices.

Finally, it was a big week for the Peugeot Citroën PSA. First, the French automaker struck a deal with TomTom Telematics to offer TomTom WEBFLEET for all connected Peugeot, Citroën, and DS fleet vehicles. The strategy is to target trucks with pre-installed mobile connectivity and offer them easy access to a service that can improve fleet efficiency, customer services and overall business performance. As of next quarter, the service will become accessible in France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Second, PSA invested an undisclosed sum in TravelCar, a start-up that offers innovative parking and rental solutions in 80 locations across Europe. If you’re driving to an airport, train station or city centre, TravelCar offers a free parking option for car owners in exchange for making their car available to rent. If the car is rented, owners get additional reimbursement. The TravelCar investment is part of PSA’s “Push to Pass” commitment to invest €100M (£89M) in mobility solutions.

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU-Automotive analysis with information from industry press releases.

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