Tesla autopilot car crash raises questions of responsibility

As self-driving cars become more a reality with multiple companies developing them, the issue of who would be responsible for accidents has become an issue. Sadly, that debate has come to the fore because of the crash of a Tesla car that was in self-driving mode with a tractor-trailer in which the ‘driver’ of the Tesla car was killed. This seems to be the first fatality involving such cars.

Tesla has issued a statement that describes the circumstances of the crash.

What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.

This will reignite the debate as to whether self-driven cars are safer than human-driven ones. The manufacturers of these cars are right in claiming that they have driven for many miles with few or no accidents. But of course, such cars are still in test mode which makes for unrealistic driving conditions. It is only when such cars are being used routinely that we will have the data to know if they are safer or not.

But the liability question is going to be the tricky one and Tesla is trying to protect itself by having its users sign an agreement:

It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.

Conflicting reports have emerged as to what the Tesla driver was doing at the time of the accident.

Frank Baressi, 62, the driver of the truck and owner of Okemah Express, said the Tesla driver was “playing Harry Potter on the TV screen” at the time of the crash and driving so quickly that “he went so fast through my trailer I didn’t see him.”

“It was still playing when he died and snapped a telephone pole a quarter mile down the road,” Baressi told The Associated Press in an interview from his home in Palm Harbor, Florida. He acknowledged he couldn’t see the movie, only heard it.

Tesla Motors said it is not possible to watch videos on the Model S touch screen. There was no reference to the movie in initial police reports.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating.


  1. John Morales says

    The technology is clearly still in its early, primitive stage.

    I do wonder about the competence of Tesla’s PR people, though…
    (My emphasis)

    Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.

    (That sure inspires confidence)

  2. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    I’m a huge propoponent of automated vehicles but I don’t think they’re ready for consumer purposes as long as they require a person to quickly and take over control. People suck at that kind of task-switching. Even Google’s paid test drivers have had problems reacting quickly in such situations.

    Regarding responsibility & liability, I feel that it should be the manufacturer’s responsibility while the system is engaged (factoring in my previous comment that the vehicles should be robust enough to never require human intervention).

    Another comment I’d make is that Elon Musk has been quoted as saying he feels LIDAR is unnecessary for autonomous vehicles. A white truck against a brightly-lit sky would not have fooled LIDAR.

  3. says

    If all vehicles had sensors, self-driving vehicles could detect other vehicles and this likely would not have happened.

    Then again, I wouldn’t get into one of those cars, period. If I want to travel without driving, I’ll take a taxi or a bus.

  4. Devocate says

    (That sure inspires confidence)

    Cars get into accidents (whether driven by humans or machines). Surely this isn’t a revelation.
    The trouble in this accident was that only the top of the car was impacted, not the impact zones. Most cars have this issue.

    Tesla car that was in self-driving mode

    Tesla’s don’t HAVE a self-driving mode. They have lane keeping, and traffic aware cruise control. They are very clear that it is NOT self-driving.

    At the moment, the liability question is very simple. The car is not approved for level 4 autonomous driving, so the liability remains with the driver, for things which are within the driver’s control.

  5. lanir says

    I wonder if the Harry Potter thing could have been a soundtrack or audio book. I know people that drive non-autonomous cars and listen to either of those.

    With the restrictions on the autopilot I honestly don’t think I’d use it. I don’t even use cruise control very often. Autopilots on cars face a real uphill climb as they essentially need to be far safer than any normal first generation technology when released.

  6. John Morales says


    The trouble in this accident was that only the top of the car was impacted, not the impact zones. Most cars have this issue.

    Yeah, well. When I read “similar incidents”, I take it that the incident was similar, not that its cause was similar. And, even then, here the cause was stated to be that neither the driver not the activated “traffic aware cruise control” detected the impending collision.

  7. Johnny Vector says

    The autopilot isn’t actually the main issue here. A close friend was in exactly this kind of accident while driving herself a month ago, in a small Honda sedan. Amazingly, she survived (because the driver’s seat collapsed backward before her head was crushed, as designed).

    I strongly suspect that in the Tesla case, as in hers, the truck driver was entirely at fault. How he could possibly know what the Tesla driver was doing other than by totally making it up is beyond me.

    It seems to me that the auto-braking feature didn’t work any worse than a human’s ability. And further, the issue is not how much better than a human the automated system needs to be, but why are we still allowing beheading machines to drive around on our roads? We’ve been putting underride guards on the backs of trucks since 1998, and in Japan all trucks have side side guards as well.

    Cyclists have been pushing for side guards on semi trailers for ages, with no success. But obviously they will save drivers’ lives too. Not to mention the improvement in fuel economy for the trucks that install them. Maybe this incident will wake people up to the issue, even if for the wrong reason.

    As for the “conflicting reports”, it’s a Tesla, fercrhissake. We know exactly what was showing on the screen, how fast it was going, the state of the autonomous systems, hell it probably even records the size of the driver’s pupils. I wonder if any of that information will ever make it into any news reports of the accident.

  8. says

    Tesla Motors said it is not possible to watch videos on the Model S touch screen.

    I was watching Good Morning America and they showed a YouTube video the driver had uploaded last year and he had a cellphone holder (iPhone, I think) between the wheel and the car’s touch screen. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of watching something on his phone with the audio streamed through the car.

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