On September 12, 2017, two pieces of news were released regarding the regulation of autonomous vehicles. The first item was the finding by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that Tesla’s Autopilot feature contributed to the May, 2016, death of a driver. The second one concerned the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) new safety guidelines for automakers that are building self-driving vehicles. These related stories deserve further examination.
Why Was Tesla Found to Share Responsibility?
The gist of the matter was that Tesla’s Autopilot technology had been designed to allow the driver to travel with no hands on the steering wheel in situations where it was inappropriate or dangerous to use Autopilot. For that reason, the NTSB found Tesla responsible.
The crash occurred when the Tesla ran into a truck on a Florida highway, killing the driver. There were no indications that the driver attempted to use the brakes or avoid the truck. Because of that fact, investigators decided that the Tesla was driving itself.
Upon examination, the NTSB discovered that the Autopilot feature allowed drivers to use it while on divided roads that included intersections. Though the Tesla manual warned drivers not to use Autopilot on such roads, the software permitted drivers to travel as fast as 90 mph using the automated feature.
Additionally, Autopilot allowed the driver to “fool” the system by merely touching the wheel each time it warned him and then continue in autonomous mode, even when it was unsafe to do so. Prior to the Florida accident, the driver was warned by the software seven times in 37 minutes; it has been changed so that the car stops itself after the third warning.
Robert Sumwalt, the NTSB Chairman, remarked, “In this crash, Tesla’s system worked as designed. But it was designed to perform limited tasks in a limited range of environments. The system gave far too much leeway to the driver to divert his attention to something other than driving.”
Although Tesla has changed the software since the crash to prevent a recurrence, the NTSB still believes the software provides too much margin of error to use Autopilot under certain unsafe conditions. Tesla has defended the feature, saying it has helped reduce crashes.
The USDOT’s “Streamlined” Safety Guidelines
The new guidelines make it easier for automakers to bring fully-autonomous vehicles to market. The document outlining the provisions is titled “A Vision for Safety,” and applies to self-driving cars operating without human controls. The guidelines in the document also do not permit states to prevent such vehicles from traveling their roads. Self-assessment by the automakers regarding whether safety standards are being met is expected to speed such vehicles into use.
USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao stated that supporting these new technologies has the potential to save lives and fuel, as well as reduce time spent in traffic. However, some consumer and safety advocates have expressed misgivings, finding “A Vision for Safety” much too hands-off. The director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project, John Simpson, commented in a released statement, “This isn’t a vision for safety. It’s a roadmap that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”
Given the NTSB’s Tesla Autopilot finding, we have to wonder whether self-assessment by the automotive manufacturers will lead to a greater level of safety or to a greater level of risk.
When life goes wrong, we fight for what’s right.
The South Carolina vehicular accident lawyers at the Louthian Law Firm have represented injured South Carolinians in personal injury suits since 1959. With our firm on the case, you can rest assured that you’ll get the personalized attention you deserve. If you or a loved one has been seriously injured or killed in a car or truck accident in which the other party was at fault, South Carolina law entitles you to hold that party legally responsible for your medical expenses and vehicle repair bills, as well as any lost wages and other financial losses. You may also seek compensation for pain and suffering or loss of comfort, care and companionship of a loved one. The deadline for filing a claim is already running, so contact the Louthian Law Firm for help by calling us at 1-803-454-1200. If you prefer, you can fill out our online contact form.