The race by automakers and technology firms to develop self-driving cars has been fueled by the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers. But that view is now in question after the first known death caused by a self-driving car was recently disclosed by Tesla Motors, a development that is sure to cause consumers to second-guess the trust they put in the booming autonomous vehicle industry.
The tragic accident happened May 7th in Williston, Florida when 40-year-old Joshua Brown put his Model S into Tesla’s autopilot mode, which is able to control the car during highway driving. However, the car’s sensor system failed to distinguish a tractor-trailer crossing the highway, and the autonomous vehicle drove full speed under the trailer.
So who is to blame? Driver or Tesla?
This is a question that has troubled the legal community for years: when autonomous cars collide, who’s at fault? Sadly, the question is no longer hypothetical, and the answer is far from black and white.
Issue 1: Beta Testing at 80 mph. Tesla’s Autopilot feature is a “beta test” that’s disabled each time the car is turned off. A driver must turn it on and click through a long series of warnings, including the one below:
Warning: Traffic-Aware Cruise Control cannot detect all objects and may not detect a stationary vehicle or other objects in the lane of travel. There may be situations in which Traffic-Aware Cruise Control does not detect a vehicle, bicycle, or pedestrian. Depending on Traffic-Aware Cruise Control to avoid a collision can result in serious injury or death.
Perhaps the driver is responsible. The warning is pretty clear—but disclaimers are just that: disclaimers. You don’t get to absolve yourself of responsibility because you post a note saying you aren’t responsible.
Issue 2: Human Nature. The crash is not Tesla’s fault, at least not completely. When Tesla enabled the Autopilot feature, consumers invariably posted videos of themselves jumping in the backseat while the car blithely steers down the highway. In the May 7th fatality accident, preliminary reports reveal the driver may have been watching a movie. Even in a fully autonomous vehicle, which Tesla doesn’t claim to manufacture, drivers should be awake and alert as 5,000 pounds of steel zip us along at 80 mph.
The ultimate point of self-driving vehicles is just that: reducing accidents. More than a million people die every year in vehicle crashes, and the vast majority of them are caused simply because humans are human. The appeal of technology is obvious. And Tesla isn’t wrong when it says statistically, vehicles driving themselves have a much better safety record than ones driven by humans.
But the Tesla accident offers the first test of how consumers will react when reminded that they are putting their lives in the hands of computer code when they turn over control of the wheel.
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