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Fatal Crash in Semi-Autonomous Car Leads to Questions Over Liability

On Behalf of | Aug 26, 2016 | Personal Injury Law |

Semi-autonomous cars are the wave of the future. With Tesla’s Model S leading the way, other auto manufacturers have followed suit, from Subaru’s Eyesight package featuring driver assistance to BMW’s plan to develop a fully self-driving car by 2021. In many ways, these features, aimed at preventing car accidents, can be extraordinarily helpful for drivers who are prone to distraction on the road. Semi-autonomous cars offer features to keep drivers in their own lanes, adaptive cruise control that will brake when cars ahead slow down, and even hands-free steering. This technology is indeed revolutionary, but it is still very new, and with any new technology comes the risk of malfunction. In the case of a car driving itself, a malfunction may lead to car crashes that result in injury or death.

First Semi-Autonomous Car Crash Fatality Occurs in Florida

Joshua Brown, an Ohio man, loved his Tesla Model S. He even had a nickname for it – Tessy. His Tesla, like all Model S cars, included the Autopilot feature that allows drivers to cruise hands-free while the car takes control. Brown often made YouTube videos while he “drove,” several times documenting how the Autopilot feature prevents accidents when a driver relinquishes control of the vehicle. Tesla’s owner, Elon Musk, even shared one of Brown’s videos on Twitter showing how Autopilot works to save drivers from potential collisions.

Unfortunately, the Model S was not perfect. On May 7, 2016, Brown was cruising on a highway in Williston, Florida while the car was in self-driving mode. When a tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of Brown’s Tesla on the highway, both Autopilot and Brown were unable to distinguish the white siding of the truck from the brightly lit sky behind it, and both consequently failed to apply the brakes. Brown’s car passed underneath the trailer, causing the top of the Tesla to be completely torn off by the bottom of the trailer, and Brown was killed. After Brown’s death, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association opened an investigation into the Tesla Autopilot feature to determine whether its safety advantages outweigh the potential dangers of drivers misusing the technology or failing to pay attention when Autopilot is on. The NHTSA also recently released a detailed set of questions directed to Tesla to investigate potential defects in any of the vehicle’s self-driving systems that may have led to Brown’s crash.

Who is Responsible?

Many questions arose after Brown’s tragic death, including debates over the safety of autopilot features in cars and whether they are a substitute for split-second human decision-making. Another question, however, hinges on who may be liable for the damages incurred in a car crash when a car was driving on its own. Brown’s family retained an lawyer, and currently the firm is investigating whether product defects may have contributed to the accident, but no suit has been filed as of yet.

If a product defect were found, Tesla could be held liable for the defect resulting in Brown’s death. Absent any defects, Tesla could still be liable because consumers may expect that self-driving features would protect them from crashing into another vehicle. Tesla points out, however, that the Autopilot feature will only engage after the driver accepts a warning that Autopilot is merely “driver assistance,” not a fully self-driving car, and that drivers must remain engaged at all times. Another argument suggests that Tesla may be liable for accidents resulting from Autopilot because it prematurely released the technology before proper testing could identify software flaws that may result in crashes, unlike other companies that have similar technology but have yet to release them to the public.

Ultimately, because this technology is so new and Brown’s death is the first to be linked to Autopilot, it remains unclear whether a court would find Tesla and other car manufacturers liable for deaths occurring while semi-autonomous features were in use. In the meantime, the best course of action is for all drivers, those with semi-autonomous cars and those without, to take every precaution when getting behind the wheel to avoid unnecessary and potentially fatal accidents.

Have You Been Involved in an Auto Accident?

If you or a loved one is dealing with the aftermath of an auto accident in Central or North Florida, let experienced lawyer, John Piccin at Piccin & Glynn help. We have handled hundreds of auto accident cases and are prepared to answer your questions, negotiate with insurance companies, and even make home or hospital visits to ensure that you get the support you need. Call John at 352-558-8480 for your free initial case consultation today.