Tesla and Self-Driving Cars Under Scrutiny After Autopilot Crash

Trusted Content

Legally reviewed by:

Erik Abrahamson, J.D. July 21, 2016

In the age of technological innovation, many drivers heralded Tesla’s autopilot feature as the next big development in driving and car safety.  However, a May crash involving a Tesla vehicle on autopilot has generated predictions of a product liability lawsuit and questions about the future of automated cars.

Tesla’s Autopilot Beta

Tesla’s self-driving feature is still in a test mode. The autopilot system combines sensors and a camera to detect, among other things:

  • Other vehicles
  • Lane markers
  • Additional road obstacles

The system executes any necessary steering while simultaneously operating the accelerator and brakes to stay a safe distance behind a preceding vehicle. The company has advised drivers to always keep their hands on the steering wheel and to remain alert to react since the car’s technology isn’t perfect.

However, Tesla didn’t invent the autopilot system. Mercedes-Benz has included similar technology on its vehicles for years. But Mercedes technology actually requires keeping hands on the wheel instead of merely suggesting it.

Tesla Crash in Williston, Florida

On May 7, a man died after his Tesla Model S hit the side of a truck in Williston, Florida while the car was in autopilot mode. The crash marks the first known death linked to a self-driving car.

The autopilot system is not really completely autonomous. Tesla describes it as a “traffic-aware cruise control” system while reminding drivers to keep their hands on the wheel.

The company has stated that neither the driver nor the software reacted before the crash. Here’s more fuel to add to the fire: The truck driver says he heard sounds of a Harry Potter movie coming from the car after the accident. And the local sheriff’s department found a portable DVD player in it.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which normally investigates accidents related to airplanes, buses, ships, or trains, has sent employees to investigate. They joined representatives of the Florida Highway Patrol and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to try to figure out whether the autopilot system caused the crash.

More than 5 million car accidents occurred in 2012. Each year, 94% of the 35,200 U.S. traffic fatalities link to human error. This equates to 1.12 deaths for each 100 million miles driven. Tesla maintains that drivers of its vehicles have tallied more than 130 million miles on autopilot, which calculates to a fatality rate just 0.78.

A Second Accident Linked to Tesla Autopilot

You might be wondering if this was an isolated occurrence. However, a second serious crash involving a Tesla on autopilot occurred approximately 100 miles east of Pittsburgh on July 1.

A Tesla Model X overturned, then landed on its roof. Thankfully, both the driver and his passenger survived.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating to find out whether the autopilot feature was actually engaged. The 77-year-old driver maintained that he was using it when the sport utility vehicle hit barriers on each side of the road.

The Possibility of Litigation

Some legal experts believe the Florida victim’s family might have grounds to sue Tesla. The basis of the suit could be misleading the driver to believe the autopilot was more capable than it indeed was. The questions are whether the driver received an adequate warning regarding the system’s potential defects and what is the reasonable standard of the meaning “autopilot”.

Naysayers maintain that the driver might have ignored safety features that were in place, indicating the driver accepted and assumed the risk of using the system. One thing is certain: Tesla is likely to raise a rigorous argument.

The company has cited frequent system checks to ensure that a driver’s hands are on the wheel. However, founder Elon Musk seemed to contradict the need for them in calling the autopilot feature “probably better than humans at this point in highway driving.”

What’s the bottom line?  

There are a lot of open questions about the liability surrounding self-driving vehicles, so if a lawsuit is filed in this case, experts, companies, and consumers will be watching very closely.

If you have questions or concerns about injuries suffered through the use of a dangerous or defective product, please contact the Tampa lawyers at Abrahamson & Uiterwyk today. We offer free initial consultations and work on a contingent fee basis, which means there are no fees or costs unless we win.  For assistance call us toll-free at 1-800-538-4878