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.