DVD player in Tesla wreck raises distraction questions

The crashed Tesla that collided with a truck while in Autopilot mode, killing the driver, had a portable DVD player reportedly still playing "Harry Potter" inside when witnesses rushed to the scene. Investigators of the May accident, in which the electric car's systems apparently failed to see a tractor-trailer crossing the highway ahead due to lighting conditions and the truck's color, are still examining data extracted from the Model S' "black box" but questions had already been raised about what might have distracted the driver.

Reports earlier today suggested eyewitness claims that a movie had been playing when the crash took place.

"There was a portable DVD player in the vehicle," Seargant Kim Montes of the Florida Highway Patrol confirmed to Reuters.

It's still too early to say – and may, indeed, be impossible – whether the driver was watching a video rather than the road ahead. The Tesla struck the 18-wheeler as the truck was making a left turn, perpendicular to oncoming traffic on a highway in Florida.

"As to the video, there was a witness who came to the scene immediately after the accident occurred, and we can't verify it at this point," Paul Weekley, the truck driver's lawyer, said in a statement. "But what we have been told is that he saw a Harry Potter video still playing when he got to the scene."

Initial reports had not mentioned the presence of a DVD player, though the automaker insisted that its own infotainment system was not capable of such functionality.

"You cannot stream video or movies on any Tesla touchscreen," Tesla spokesperson Alexis Georgeson told SlashGear in a statement.

The suggestion of an aftermarket device potentially causing distraction raises new questions, especially when it comes to the legality of such hardware.

Laws concerning whether TVs and video displays are permitted within vehicles vary by state. Although many US states forbid the use of "television screens" visible to the driver when the vehicle is in motion – including Florida [pdf link] where the crash took place – not every state has the same legislation.

Ohio – where the driver of the Tesla, believed to be 40-year-old Joshua Brown, lives – has no comparable law against driver-visible displays, however.

Driver distraction has come under increasing attention in recent years as in-car systems have gained functionality and smartphones greater prevalence. As far back in 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed new guidelines that could limit the potential for touchscreens, tablets, and other hardware in cars from keeping eyes and attention from the road for more than a couple of seconds.

Independent studies carried out subsequently suggested that even technologies intended to reduce distraction, like voice control and Bluetooth headsets, could be just as dangerous.

For Tesla, figuring out the contributing factors that led to the accident on May 7 is of even greater importance, with the NHTSA conducting a preliminary investigation into whether its Autopilot – the most advanced driver-assistance system in public use today – operated as expected.

The automaker downloaded data from the crashed car's systems and shared that with the Florida Highway Patrol.

SOURCE Reuters