On the last day of his life, Jeremy Banner woke before dawn for his morning commute. He climbed into his red Tesla Model 3 and headed south along the fringes of the Florida Everglades. Swamps and cropland whizzed past in a green blur.
Banner tapped a lever on the steering column, and a soft chime sounded. He’d activated the most complex and controversial auto-safety feature on the market: Tesla Autopilot. It’s a computer system that performs all the functions of normal highway driving without any input from the driver. When the computer is in control, the car can speed up, change lanes, take exits, and—if it spots an obstacle ahead—hit the brakes.
Tesla Inc. aims to dominate the global auto market by building the world’s first self-driving car, and it considers Autopilot to be the crucial first step. Customers adore it. They’ve logged more than 1.5 billion miles on Autopilot, often pushing the limits of the software. Although the owner’s manual warns drivers to closely supervise the car at all times, that hasn’t stopped some from reading books, napping, strumming a ukulele, or having sex. Most of the time, the car gets them where they’re going.
But on that morning in March, Banner’s sedan failed to spot a tractor-trailer crossing the four-lane highway ahead of him. So did Banner, whose attention had apparently strayed. He struck the trailer broadside at 68 mph, the top of his car shearing off lik