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First Semi-Autonomous Car Fatality Raises Legal Questions

Posted on in Car Accidents

Illinois personal injury lawyer, Illinois wrongful death attorney, Illinois car accident lawyer,All new technologies carry the risk of running into unforeseen problems. New phones, new computers, and new software systems all release updates as issues arise, and many companies release new technology under a Beta testing phase, which tells consumers that not all kinks have been worked out yet. In most circumstances, unforeseen issues merely cause annoyances or bugs that make systems less efficient, but rarely do they cause actual harm. With a motor vehicle, however, any malfunction carries a much higher risk of a car collision. With a semi-autonomous car, a malfunction can result in death.

Tesla Model S Fatality Occurs in Florida

An Ohio man was an early adopter of new technology, including the semi-autonomous car. He purchased a Tesla Model S, one of the first cars to introduce a driver assistance feature, Autopilot, that allows drivers to cruise hands-free while the car essentially takes over. Autopilot can keep drivers in their lanes, swerve to avoid collisions, and brake when cars ahead slow down via its adaptive cruise control system.

On May 7, 2106, the Ohio man was driving with Autopilot engaged on a two-lane highway in Florida when a tractor-trailer turned in front of his vehicle. Both the man and Autopilot failed to brake, allegedly because both were unable to distinguish the white siding of the truck from the brightly lit sky behind it. The Tesla passed underneath the trailer going 65 miles per hour and the driver was killed.

Safety and Liability Concerns

The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) opened an investigation into Autopilot after the Ohio man’s death over concerns that Autopilot is not yet safe for consumer use. While safety advantages of semiautonomous cars are numerous, from cars stepping in to avoid crashes when drivers are distracted to simply allowing drivers to feel more protected from other, less cautious drivers, the NHTSA investigation posits that the dangers of drivers misusing the technology by simply allowing the car to do most of the driving may outweigh the benefits.

Essentially, the NHTSA fears that Autopilot lulls drivers into a false sense of security and thus they may not be ready to take control of the car when necessary. In addition, the NHTSA released a set of questions directed to Tesla to determine whether there may be defects in any of Autopilot’s systems that may contribute to crashes like the one involving the Ohio man.

Safety concerns aside, the next question centers on who may be liable for damages when a car is in self-driving mode. Because semiautonomous cars and their technology are so new, this issue has not yet come up in the judicial system, so several outcomes are possible. If a product defect is found, perhaps through the NHTSA’s questions relating to defects in Autopilots systems and software, the manufacturer may be liable for resulting collisions. If no defects are found, however, it may be more difficult to hold Tesla liable.

One theory suggests that consumers can reasonably expect that self-driving features would protect them from car collisions, and thus Tesla could be liable. Another theory proposes that Tesla could be held liable for releasing Autopilot before proper testing could identify software and system issues that would result in crashes like the one detailed above, especially because other companies have similar systems but have waited to release them until thoroughly tested. In response to questions over liability, Tesla has released statements indicating that while the company is saddened over the Ohio man’s death, there is no evidence that Autopilot malfunctioned at the time of the crash, and that drivers are instructed to maintain control of the vehicle at all times while Autopilot is engaged.

Have You Been Injured in an Accident?

In accidents involving multiple vehicles, it is often difficult to determine who is at fault. If you or a loved one has been injured in a multi-car pileup, contact the experienced Lake County injury attorneys at Salvi & Maher, L.L.C. for help. We have represented injured Illinois motorists for decades, and we can provide the representation you need. Contact us at 847-662-3303 to schedule your free case consultation today.

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/business/joshua-brown-technology-enthusiast-tested-the-limits-of-his-tesla.html

http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/automotive/ct-self-driving-car-fatal-crash-20160630-story.html

http://fortune.com/2016/07/12/tesla-autopilot-crash-nhtsa/

http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-tesla-liabilty-20160705-snap-story.html

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