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Tesla says new Autopilot may have prevented deaths

Months after the first known death by a Tesla driver using their Autopilot self-driving technology, another fatal accident involving a Chinese driver allegedly also using Autopilot was revealed last month. Tesla is investigating the incidents, and has claimed that their new version of Autopilot may have prevented those accidents.

Two fatal accidents this year

The first known fatal accident was this May in Florida in a Tesla Model S. The driver, Joshua Brown, was a proponent of not only Tesla but high-tech in general, and would often post videos of himself trying out the Tesla's self-driving software, Autopilot. Brown was on a Florida highway behind a semi truck making a left-hand turn when the car failed to recognize the back of the semi and crashed into it, killing Brown.

The second fatal incident occurred this January in China, although it's still unclear whether the driver was using Autopilot or not. 23-year-old Gao Yaning was driving his father's Model S on a highway in Beibei province when it struck a road-cleaning vehicle. CCTV, a Chinese television station, has video of the accident, and reported that Autopilot was on. However, investigations by Tesla say that this hasn't been determined quite yet. The victim's family is suing Tesla and the car's dealership.

Autopilot: safer with the update?

Just days before the news about the fatal accident in China was released, Tesla head Elon Musk said that the release of Autopilot 8.0 "very likely" could have prevented the death of Brown. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration is still investigating the crash, but did state that they would take the new software update into account.

Tesla has stated that the Autopilot software is not supposed to completely take over for the driver, and that users should always have their hands on the wheel and be ready to control the vehicle at any time. The update includes improvements to the radar systems, which look for hazards around the vehicle. In the case of Brown, the radars weren't able to distinguish between the overcast sky and the white of the truck's trailer. These improvements are purported to be able to handle that and prevent the mistake in the future.

Driving safely, now and in the future

Many supporters for autonomous car technology say that they'll reduce accidents. In fact, insurance companies wonder if they'll be in business when autonomous vehicles take over because of the drop in motor vehicle accidents.

Although self-driving cars may reduce accidents, until every car on the road is autonomous and can avoid crashes, what does a driver do in a normal car vs. self-driving car accident? Can all accidents really be avoided? We won't know until we get there. Until then, accidents can and will happen with cars that have autonomous features, like hands-free parking, or with fully-autonomous vehicles.

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