Tesla Shares Blame in First-Known Semi-Autonomous Car Fatality

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After an in-depth investigation into the fatal 2016 crash of a semi-autonomous Tesla sedan, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the vehicle’s autopilot system contributed to the wreck.

The NTSB found that the Tesla Model S allowed to driver to use the Autopilot system outside of the specified environment for which it was designed. As a result, the driver was fatally injured when the vehicle’s autonomous feature failed to stop as a big-rig truck was making a left turn in front of him.

While 100 percent of the blame was not assigned to Tesla, as the truck driver involved
failed to yield while entering the roadway, the incident does shine a light on the potential safety issues of autonomous vehicles. In this case, the vehicle’s software allowed the driver to remain disengaged from the driving task for too long.

In addition, the autopilot system should not have engaged, given the type of road on which it was travelling. Tesla uses technology that senses whether a driver’s hands are on the steering wheel as a way to determine if he or she is paying attention. According to the NTSB, this is not an effective way to detect if a driver is paying attention to the road.

Robert L. Sumwalt, Chairman of the NTSB, commented that Tesla’s system performed correctly, but it was only designed to perform in certain environments. In this case, he said, the driver was allowed to divert his attention for too long. If the Autopilot feature was able to identify the truck, it could have stopped the vehicle and avoided this tragic fatality.

Tesla Remains Committed to Self-Driving Technology

According to a written statement from Tesla in light of the NTSB’s analysis of the accident, the company will continue to perfect their technology with an ongoing commitment to customer safety. The statement also took the opportunity to remind all customers that the Autopilot function is not a fully self-driving technology. Drivers must remain engaged and attentive at all times.

As the industry accelerates its development of self-driving vehicles, the NTSB urges semi-autonomous vehicle manufacturers to develop technology that prevents the use of Autopilot in an environment where the technology should not be used. For example, the fatality involving the Tesla vehicle took place on a state road that has access from cross streets. According to NTSB Human Performance Investigator, Ensar Becic, it can be difficult for a driver to interpret which roads are appropriate to use Autopilot. One potential solution is to use satellite data to help determine whether the type of road is appropriate to use Autopilot.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urges car manufacturers to investigate technology that is more effective at determining whether a driver is paying attention to the road. One example is the use of a camera that tracks the driver’s eye and head movement to ensure that he or she is focused on driving.

One of Maryland’s “Super Lawyers,” Paul Tolzman received his Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Loyola University Maryland and earned his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Baltimore School of Law. He was admitted to practice before Maryland Courts in 1977. Mr. Tolzman has extensive litigation experience in criminal/DUI defense. In addition, in the personal injury arena, his firm has recovered over $100 million for his clients.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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