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What Tesla's First Fatality Means for Self-Driving Cars

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 05, 2016 3:59 PM

It might be time to tap the breaks on the push for self-driving cars. Last Wednesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into what could be the first fatality caused by a self-driving car: the death of Joshua Brown last May, who was killed after his self-driving Tesla collided with a tractor-trailer.

Here's how the fatality could impact this emerging industry, and the laws and regulations that govern it.

Expect More Oversight

The self-driving car industry has long blamed almost every accident on human error. Indeed, it wasn't until this March that the maker of a self-driving car accepted liability in a crash, when a Google autonomous vehicle got into a low-speed fender bender with a city bus.

That fender bender alone was news-worthy; the Tesla fatality dramatically escalated the stakes with self-driving car accidents, from a minor dust up to the loss of human life.

And regardless of whether Tesla is found liable for Joshua Brown's death, the crash is likely to put more pressure on states and the federal government to increase their regulation of self-driving cars. When California drafted the country's first self-driving car regulations, for example, they required cars to include a steering wheel and breaks. Google protested; the company wanted its autonomous cars to be truly autonomous, meaning no human intervention. That vision of a self-driving car probably won't come to fruition anytime soon.

Federal regulatory authority over self-driving cars is currently limited, but that could be expended drastically this summer, when the federal government releases new rules for driverless cars.

Similarly, we may see more proactive oversight not just in how cars are regulated, but how self-driving car companies interact with their customers. Around the time of Brown's accident, several other Tesla drivers experienced problems with their suspension. Tesla offered to cover some of their repairs, under a "Goodwill Agreement" that some commentators warned could prevent drivers from reporting problems to the regulators. That too drew a warning from NHTSA.

And, of course, accidents involving self-driving cars could be a boon for plaintiff's lawyers. Companies like Tesla and Google have deep pockets. Should their cars be found responsible for accidents, you can expect attorneys to come running.

A Driverless Dream Postponed?

It's unlikely that Tesla's most recent controversy will slow down the industry's development too much. Pretty much everyone from Silicon Valley to Detroit to D.C. thinks that autonomous cars are coming someday, in some form.

Major automobile companies have started to invest in self-driving automobile tech companies, with General Motors going on a recent start-up shopping spree. And in January, the Department of Transportation announced $4 billion in funding for the industry, along with a push for new regulations.

So, while the Tesla fatality might change how autonomous vehicles roll out, it probably won't bring them to a stop in the long run.

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