Tech whiz tested the limits of his 'Tessy'

A screengrab of a video posted on YouTube by Mr Joshua Brown himself of a previous trip, celebrating the Autopilot feature of his all-electric Tesla Model S, which allowed him to drive hands-free. He was killed when his sedan collided with a tractor-
A screengrab of a video posted on YouTube by Mr Joshua Brown himself of a previous trip, celebrating the Autopilot feature of his all-electric Tesla Model S, which allowed him to drive hands-free. He was killed when his sedan collided with a tractor-trailer on a Florida highway in May.PHOTO: JOSHUA BROWN/YOUTUBE

CANTON (Ohio) • Mr Joshua Brown loved his all-electric Tesla Model S so much he nicknamed it Tessy.

And he celebrated the Autopilot feature that made it possible for him to cruise the highways, making YouTube videos of himself driving hands-free. In the first nine months he owned it, Mr Brown put more than 72,400km on the car.

"I do drive it a LOT," he wrote in response to one of the hundreds of viewer comments on one of his two dozen Tesla-themed videos. His postings attracted countless other Tesla enthusiasts.

They tend to be people who like to live on technology's leading edge which, in Mr Brown's case, meant dismantling bombs for the navy during the Iraq War, then going home to start his own company to extend the Internet service into rural America. In his spare time, he used a 3D printer to make model tanks and trucks.

His Tesla, in other words, was simply one more extension of his technology-driven life.

But he became a victim of an innovation geared to people like him when his Tesla Model S electric sedan collided with a semi- trailer truck on a Florida highway in May, making him the first known fatality in a self-driving car.

"He liked it mainly because it was an exceptional use of technology and Josh was very much an innovator," said his friend Paul Snow, who recalled how excited Mr Brown was about his Tesla during a recent road trip. "He enjoyed the fact that technology was available, that it was being used to, ironically, increase safety on the roads."

Tesla owners are a devoted bunch. Immediately after the company unveiled a prototype of its Model 3 car, more than 200,000 enthusiasts put down deposits on the vehicles, which start at US$35,000 (S$47,000) and will not be available until next year.

Many Tesla owners like to showcase their cars on social media, creating songs, routines and other demonstrations of different features, particularly to show off how Autopilot works.

Mr Brown's most recent video was his most popular. Titled Autopilot Saves Model S, it shows him driving on an interstate highway from Cleveland to Canton. A white truck cuts in front of his vehicle and, by his account, the Tesla's Autopilot feature swerves the car to the right, avoiding a collision.

After Tesla founder Elon Musk called attention to the video on Twitter, it went viral.

Mr Brown seemed to be elated. "He had said, 'For something to catch Elon Musk's eye, I can die and go to heaven now'," a neighbour, Ms Krista Kitchen, said, choking up.

"He was absolutely thrilled and then, a couple of weeks later, he died."

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said preliminary reports indicated that the crash occurred when a tractor- trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla, and the car failed to apply the brakes. The agency did not name the victim, but the Florida Highway Patrol identified him as Mr Brown.

Mr Brown attended the University of New Mexico, where he studied physics and computer science, but did not graduate, the school said. Instead, he joined the navy, where he served for more than a decade and specialised in disarming explosives, according to his company's website.

Photos posted on his Facebook page show a love of the outdoors, where he rappelled down cliffs and jumped out of airplanes for fun. One of those struck by his adventurous side was Ms Terri Lyn Reed, a senior insurance account executive who said she had helped him set up the insurance at his company, Nexu Innovations.

"He'd probably fly an F-18 to test-drive it," she said, referring to the military fighter jet.

Mr Brown's enthusiasm for technology factored deeply into his work at Nexu, which specialised in setting up Internet access in rural areas of the country where forests and mountains created obstacles to entering the connected world.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Tech whiz tested the limits of his 'Tessy''. Print Edition | Subscribe