Tesla driver killed while using autopilot was watching Harry Potter, witness says

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The Tesla driver killed in the first known fatal crash involving a self-driving car may have been watching a Harry Potter movie at the time of the collision in Florida, according to a truck driver involved in the crash.

The truck driver, Frank Baressi, 62, told the Associated Press that the Tesla driver Joshua Brown, 40, was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” during the collision and was driving so fast that “he went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him”.

The disclosure raises further questions about the 7 May crash in Williston, Florida, which occurred after Brown put his Model S into Tesla’s autopilot mode, which is able to control a car while it’s driving on the highway.

The fatal crash, which federal highway safety regulators are now investigating, is a significant setback and a public relations disaster for the growing autonomous vehicle industry. Tesla Motors Inc’s shares, however, were down less than 1% on Friday in early trading.

Baressi, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment, said the Harry Potter movie “was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road”. He told the AP, however, that he heard the movie but didn’t see it.

The Florida highway patrol told Reuters that there was a portable DVD player in the vehicle.

According to Tesla’s account of the crash, the car’s sensor system, against a bright spring sky, failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway. In a blogpost, Tesla said the self-driving car attempted to drive full speed under the trailer “with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S”.

The top of the vehicle was “torn off by the force of the collision”, according to a police report in the local Levy County Journal.

Baressi was uninjured.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, tweeted his condolences regarding the “tragic loss”, but the company’s statement deflected blame for the crash. His 537-word statement noted that this was Tesla’s first known autopilot death in roughly 130m miles driven by customers.

“Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles,” the statement said.

It goes on to say that the car’s autonomous software is designed to nudge consumers to keep their hands on the wheels to make sure they’re paying attention. “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” the company said.

News of the death came just as BMW announced that it is joining forces with US computer chip firm Intel and Mobileye, an Israeli tech company, to develop its own self-driving cars.

Google, Uber and numerous automakers have also tested self-driving technology. BMW said the goal of the new collaboration was to develop cars that would eventually allow them to take their eyes off the road.

Brown, who owned a technology company called Nexu Innovation, was a Tesla enthusiast who posted videos of his car on autopilot on YouTube. One of them showed his vehicle avoiding a crash on the highway. The footage racked up 1m views after Musk tweeted it.

One of his first videos appeared to show Brown temporarily driving with no hands in slow-moving traffic. The Associated Press also reported that records show he received eight speeding tickets in six years.

Since Tesla introduced the autopilot mode last October, Model S drivers have recorded videos of themselves online pushing the technology to its limits.

On YouTube, there are multiple videos showing drivers with their hands off the wheel. Musk has advised against this. However, one of the videos was uploaded by actress Talulah Riley, Musk’s second wife.

At the end of Tesla’s blogpost announcing Brown’s death, the company described the victim, who they did not name, as someone with “a loving family and we are beyond saddened by their loss”.

“He was a friend to Tesla and the broader [electric vehicle] community, a person who spent his life focused on innovation and the promise of technology and who believed strongly in Tesla’s mission.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sam Levin and Nicky Woolf in San Francisco, for The Guardian on Friday 1st July 2016 18.43 Europe/London

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