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Tesla Autopilot Crashes: Who is liable?


Earlier this year, Joshua Brown, a driver of a Tesla running on autopilot, passed away after a collision involving a tractor trailer on a Florida highway. This weekend, Telsa CEO Elon Musk announced a software update for its vehicles that significantly changes how autopilot works. Elon Musk said that the new software update is designed to prevent the crash that claimed Joshua Brown’s life. The news about the autopilot software update has sparked a new discussion over liability when it comes to assisted driving: Who is legally at fault in a crash if a car is being controlled by a computer?

Tesla Motors Inc.’s initial response to the liability debate associated with driverless vehicle technology involves the good old-fashioned turn signal. Tesla argues that by hitting a turn signal stalk, a driver theoretically acknowledges road conditions are appropriate for a passing maneuver and therefore takes responsibility for the consequences. However, it is presently unclear whether Tesla’s beta-testers were fully informed of the risks in the first place. Did they know that death was a possibility? CEO Elon Musk has tried to deflect Tesla’s liability by warning, “[T]here won’t ever be zero fatalities, there won’t ever be zero injuries, but the new software is about minimizing the probability of injury or death.” Musk cautioned that the Telsa autopilot software is like airplane autopilot software, and that the driver must be constantly engaged while using the autopilot feature. However, the term autopilot may be just enough to lull drivers into a false sense that a car does not require or need any user input, and can simply just drive itself.

The crash claiming Joshua Brown’s life occurred after his Tesla hit a tractor trailer that was making a left turn in front of him. Neither the Model S autopilot software nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer, so the brakes were never applied. Tesla released a statement that the autopilot is supposed to brake for solid obstacles in the car’s path, but the computer vision system failed to distinguish between the white side of the truck’s trailer and an overhead highway sign. The Tesla crashed directly into the bottom of the trailer, tearing the top of the vehicle off by the force of the collision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating Joshua Brown’s collision to gather additional data about the incident and information about auto-driving systems. Hopefully the NHTSA’s investigation will shed light on the liability issues associated with self-driving cars.

While technology enthusiasts celebrate the arrival of futuristic, self-driving cars, the future of autopilot liability and litigation is still on the horizon. If you have been injured in car crash, call Beltz & Beltz at 727-201-9944 or 813-559-9090, and speak with one of our lawyers to discuss your case. The call is free.

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