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Yesterday Tesla Motors announced the first death associated with one of its cars in Autopilot mode. The accident occurred in Florida in May and was made public by the car's manufacturer only when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an official investigation of the self-driving car's Autopilot system.
This first self-driving car death raises questions about the safety and future of automated highways at a critical time when authorities are attempting to figure out regulations. Tesla Motors did its best to reassure the public that the incident was not cause for concern, but it is certain that enthusiasm about self-driving cars is at least temporarily tempered. As for liability, Tesla Motors may be sued but not necessarily by the deceased's family.
According to USA Today, Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, died from injuries he sustained when a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of his 2015 Tesla on a highway in Florida in May. The Tesla was in Autopilot mode, which is supposed to allow the car to cruise, maintain a lane, and stop suddenly if traffic appears ahead.
But the Tesla and its driver failed to note the truck passing perpendicular and slid underneath, then crashed into a pole down the road. The trucker, who survived, told reporters that the autopiloted car was playing a "Harry Potter" movie and that he could hear it running after the accident.
Meanwhile, Tesla Motors denies that it's even possible to play movies on the car's touch screen and is trying to minimize the gravity of the accident. The company wrote, "This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles."
Although the family of the driver who died in his Tesla could theoretically sue the manufacturer if Autopilot malfunctioned, the company pointed out in its blog post that Brown was a technology and Tesla enthusiast. In fact, Brown had previously filmed himself in the Tesla on Autopilot and said the feature saved his life.
Tesla Motors also explained in its blog post that when a car is put on Autopilot, the driver must acknowledge a warning onscreen that the program is still experimental. In other words, Tesla disclaimed liability while announcing the tragedy.
But even if Jason Brown's family does not sue Tesla for wrongful death, it is possible that the trucker who was in the accident with Brown will sue if he was injured. Frank Baressi, 62, told the Associated Press that the Tesla driver was driving so quickly that "he went so fast through my trailer I didn't see him."
If you have been injured in accident, talk to a lawyer. Many personal injury attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to assess your case.