Lessons To Be Learned From Fatal Tesla Crash

In my blog post last year, I discussed the emergence of the driverless car and how its presence will increase as the technology improves, and costs go down. In the meantime, crashes involving driverless cars will continue to make headlines. Recently, a Tesla driver was killed in a collision with a truck. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is currently investigating the crash. As a personal injury attorney looking at these issues, there are serious lessons to be learned from this collision.

The accident happened at an intersection on a highway near Williston, Florida. The Tesla driver was operating his car in “Autopilot” mode when the collision occurred. He was driving straight on the highway when a tractor trailer driver took a left turn in front of him. The Tesla failed to stop and drove under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer striking the windshield of the Model S. instantly killing the driver.

As an Alameda personal injury lawyer, my first observation about this accident is that all of the public attention appears to be on the Tesla car and its driver. In California, a driver making a left turn on a highway has the legal obligation to make sure it is safe before making his left turn ( Vehicle code section 21801 (a) ). In other words, the Tesla driver had the right of way. But because the car was in Autopilot mode, the focus has been shifted away from the primary cause of the accident. The primary cause of this fatal accident appears to be the truck driver’s failure to yield the right of way to oncoming traffic.

My next observation is that we have a long way to go before cars are truly driverless. This is not to say that the Tesla driver in this case was at fault. But it is a reminder, that these cars are not foolproof. A look at Tesla’s operating manual for the Model S describes many of the limitations of the Autopilot system.

Under the limitations section of the Tesla owner’s manual, it states that certain automatic features may not functions if visibility is poor, if there is a bright light approaching, such as headlights, or bright sun, if the car is being driven too close to the vehicle in front of it, if the windshield camera becomes obstructed due to fog, debris, etc. if the road is narrow or winding, and on and on. One rather startling admission in the manual is that the GPS system which reads speed limits and adjusts the car’s speed accordingly can pick up the limit from an adjacent roadway. So one could be on a city street, when the GPS picks us the speed limit from an adjacent freeway. The result is the car increases to freeway speeds.

So it is no wonder that Tesla advises its drivers, that even though the vehicle has these autopilot features, the driver is to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times. In fact, Tesla has technology built into the system to detect whether the driver has his hands on the wheel. If he doesn’t, he gets a warning to place his hands back on the wheel.

Tesla points out that in the United States, for all the cars on the road, there is an average of one fatality for every 94 million miles. For the Tesla with Autopilot, Tesla claims that its fatality rate is one per every 134 miles driven, significantly better than the typical car.

As this new technology develops, drivers must remain vigilant as always. Responsibility for accidents must remain with the persons operating the vehicles.

Source: Tesla’s Autopilot feature probed after fatal crash, USA Today, July 1, 2016

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