First Autopilot Fatality -- What's Next for Tesla?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 01, 2016 3:56 PM

In the first known fatality in a self-driving car, a Tesla driver was killed when his car's Autopilot function failed to recognize a tractor-trailer turning onto the road in front of it, sending the vehicle underneath the trailer and into the back of the truck. Allegedly, the Model S could not distinguish between the big rig or the trailer and "brightly lit sky" behind it and never applied the brakes.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is now investigating the accident, so what could that mean for self-driving cars in general, and Tesla's Model S in particular?

Truck or Sky?

Josh Brown was reportedly an avid user of Tesla's Autopilot, using it frequently and even uploading videos of his Model S avoiding collisions to YouTube. The 40-year-old was travelling through Williston, Florida, and according to the truck driver with whom he collided, was watching a Harry Potter movie while his car drove for him. "It was still playing when he died," said Frank Baressi, "and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road."

Tesla released a statement on the impending NHTSA investigation, noting:

...the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S.

Legal Liability

What the accident means for the future of self-driving cars, and the legal liability for the auto manufacturers that produce them, will likely depend on the outcome of the investigation. For its part, Tesla insists the driver is still responsible for maintaining control of the car, even when the Autopilot is engaged. "[T]he car reminds the driver to 'Always keep your hands on the wheel,'" Tesla asserted, "[t]he system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver's hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected."

A recall at this point is unlikely, as the car maker points out the autopilot remains in a "public beta phase" that requires customer acknowledgement and participation. Too, The Verge points out that rules for public betas have not been set and are a new territory for regulators.

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