Tesla Autopilot System Was Partly Responsible for Fatal Crash

After a Tesla Model S with Autopilot software in operation crashed into a transport truck in Florida in May 2016, killing the Tesla driver, an investigation by the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found no evidence that the Autopilot had malfunctioned. At the time, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concurred with the findings about the software: the system had operated as intended, but the driver’s inattentiveness, due to his over reliance on the Autopilot, contributed to the cause of his death.

In September, the NTSB held a meeting to discuss its findings concerning the crash. According to the New York Times, the NTSB members had “voted unanimously to attribute the probable cause of the accident to multiple factors, … including also the failure of the truck driver to yield to the vehicle.”

The agency report stated, in part, “Contributing to the car driver’s over-reliance on the vehicle automation was its operational design, which permitted his prolonged disengagement from the driving task and his use of the automation in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from the manufacturer.” The driver had, in fact, turned his attention away from the road for an extended period, and had ignored seven or more warnings from the Autopilot to re-engage before the crash happened. Moreover, he had been using the Autopilot on a road for which it was not designed.

“The renewed attention to the Tesla system came as automakers are jockeying to push driverless technologies forward, while lawmakers and regulators scramble to keep pace,” commented Darrell Etherington of techcrunch.com. Since the crash, Tesla has modified the operation of the Autopilot system so that it disengages if a driver is continually inattentive, and slows to a stop if warnings are ignored.  The vehicle can’t engage Autopilot again unless the driver stops the vehicle, then restarts it.
Tesla provided a statement to techcrunch.com reminding readers that the NHTSA found that Autopilot reduces accident rates by 40 percent. The company will evaluate the NTSB’s analysis and recommendations. “We will also continue to be extremely clear with current and potential customers that Autopilot is not a fully self-driving technology and drivers need to remain attentive at all times.”
Craig Follis has extensive experience in litigation, negotiating and settling suits, and providing legal opinions on liability and insurance coverage. You can reach him at (888) 703-0109 or via email at cfollis@lawyersva.com.

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