Last month, reports surfaced that a Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) Model S owner was involved in a fatal crash in Florida (which happened back in May). The collision was the result of a truck making a left-hand turn in front of the Model S.
News of such crashes typically don't make the national news, but the fact that the Model S was in Autopilot mode (Tesla's semi-autonomous driving system) means that this is the first known fatality in a semi-autonomous car.
As more details about the crash come to light, investors and the public are left wondering if semi-autonomous driving systems like Tesla's Autopilot -- and eventually fully autonomous systems -- are on the right track.
Consumer Reports just called for Tesla's Autopilot system to be disabled on its cars until it's fully developed and out of beta mode.
"'Autopilot' can't actually drive the car, yet it allows consumers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time. Tesla should disable automatic steering in its cars until it updates the program to verify that the driver's hands are on the wheel," Consumer Reports' vice president of consumer policy and mobilization, Laura MacCleery, said in a press release this week.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and National Transportation Safety Board are both investigating the crash.
But there's no indication that semi-autonomous and autonomous driving technology is in jeopardy. Actually, there's plenty of data that indicates driverless cars will be here in full force very soon.
A report published earlier last month by IHS Automotive said that worldwide, 76 million cars sold between now and 2035 will have some level of autonomy.
"This is a substantial increase from previous estimates, and is influenced by recent research and development by automotive OEMs, supplier and technology companies who are investing in this area," IHS said. According to IHS estimates, about 21 million of those vehicles will be sold in 2035 alone. And just six years from now 600,000 autonomous cars will be sold globally.
About 82.9 million cars were sold worldwide in 2015, to put those above numbers in perspective. The U.S. is estimated to be the biggest market for all this driverless car growth, which makes the Tesla crash especially important in this country.
IHS estimates that several thousand fully autonomous cars will be sold in the U.S. as soon as 2020 and that number will reach 4.5 million by 2035.
Why crashes won't stop this technology
The NHTSA has already set some preliminary guidelines for driverless cars and will release more official rules later this month. The organization is in charge of crash test ratings in the U.S. as well as monitoring recalls -- and it believes autonomy will greatly reduce traffic deaths in the country.
Autonomous cars could eventually save 30,000 lives on average every year in the U.S., but not until driverless cars become ubiquitous (probably around 2050). That would mean in nearly 30 years our country could eliminate 90% of car-related deaths. And the benefits increase exponentially when other countries are included. Worldwide car-related deaths could decrease on average by as much 1 million every year with driverless car ubiquity.
Good, not great
Technology will need to accomplish some amazing feats to reduce vehicle deaths by that much. And tech companies are making great progress.
Graphics process unit (GPU) maker NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA) is already on its second generation of a semi-autonomous platform, called Drive PX 2, that helps cars understand their surroundings. The company's GPUs process complex computer vision data to help cars decipher whether they are looking at a traffic sign or a pedestrian, and distinguish between a van or an ambulance.
The company's primary revenue driver is selling GPUs for PCs, but NVIDIA sees driverless cars as a new way to grow its GPU business.
One company that knows all too well of the driverless car opportunity, and limits, right now is Mobileye (NASDAQOTH:MBBYF). The company makes part of the technology behind Tesla's Autopilot system and provides semi-autonomous system to about 90% of automakers.
The company told StreetInsider after Tesla's fatal crash that its own automatic emergency braking (AEB) system isn't able to recognize the lateral turn across a car's path that occurred in that particular collision.
Tesla followed up with its own statement, saying:
"Tesla's autopilot system was designed in-house and uses a fusion of dozens of internally and externally developed component technologies to determine the proper course of action in a given scenario."
In either case, it's clear that semi-autonomous driving technology isn't able to account for all scenarios (or even most at this point).
Of course, there's too much positive potential for driverless technologies for the technlogy to be abandoned. There will likely be adjustments to regulations along the way, and the NHTSA could possibly add more restrictions on what automakers and technology companies are allowed to release to the public in light of recent Tesla crash.
But the U.S. government is already on board with this technology and nearly every automaker is developing these features alongside the biggest technology companies in the world. The pace at which driverless cars come to us may speed up or slow down a bit over the next few years. But make no mistake -- driverless cars are already on their way.