EXPERT: Robotics community was bracing for first self-driving car death

Posted at 5:43 PM, Jul 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-01 17:51:47-04

Mechanical engineers are cautious to put the blame on Tesla’s self-driving car after the death of a 40-year-old Canton man who was driving a Model S and using its Autopilot feature.

Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton was killed in a crash on May 7 in Florida when a semi tractor-trailer crossed a divided highway and collided with Brown’s car. 

In a statement on the company's website, Tesla said that neither the driver nor the Autopilot noticed the white side of the trailer against the brightly lit sky and neither applied the brakes.

“We in robotics figured that it was really just a matter of time until there would be an accident,” Roger Quinn, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Case Western Reserve University, told

Quinn has extensive experience with autonomous vehicles. He was part of the CWRU team that built a completely autonomous vehicle for a robotic challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2007. 

Now the Biologically Inspired Robotics program is developing an autonomous lawnmower and snow plow that uses a combination of Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensors, GPS and cameras to navigate. 

Quinn explained that Tesla’s vision system is camera-based. 

“It’s more like an advanced cruise control,” he said. “So it’s really not meant to be driverless. The driver is supposed to be paying attention all the time.”

He said the vision system likely failed. But unless the driver’s vision was also obscured, he should have been able to take over. 

Brown appears to have had significant experience being the wheel of the Model S — posting 40 videos demonstrating the technology on his YouTube page beginning in October 2015. 

According to records obtained by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Brown received 8 speeding tickets between the years 2010 and 2015. 

Quinn is cautious to point fingers at either party without reviewing the data. But he said this tragedy could be an important point in the research and development of self-driving vehicles. 

“It points out that research needs to be done,” he said. “It confirms some of the thoughts we have about not trusting any one sensor.”

In a statement, Brown’s family said they are also hopeful that valuable lessons will be learned from Joshua’s death. 

“The Brown family is committed to cooperating in these efforts and hopes that information learned from this tragedy will trigger further innovation which enhances the safety of everyone on the roadways.”