A 40-year-old man who was in a Tesla Model S electric sedan has the Autopilot feature engaged on his vehicle and was allowing the car to drive him as he watched a Harry Potter movie. Unfortunately, tragedy struck. The Autopilot system in the Tesla did not see a big-rig that was turning left across a highway. As a result, the Tesla drove directly underneath the rig. This led to the death of the car's driver.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted an investigation into what went wrong, according to the Los Angeles Times.
NHTSA said Tesla cooperated fully with the investigation, and the agency also did research into other crashes involving Tesla's autopilot which were not as serious. They found that the crashes generally involved "driver behavior factors."
If driver behavior is the cause of the accident, then a driver would be held accountable for damages. However, there are questions as to the extent of the liability of Tesla and other makers of self-driving cars.
In concluding its investigation, NHTSA indicated that it remains important for drivers to pay attention even when a car is self-driving or has autopilot activated. Tesla's instruction manual and on-screen instructions also both make clear that drivers are still ultimately responsible for what happens and have to pay attention. If drivers fail to do so, it is distraction or other behaviors on the part of the motorist which could be the direct cause of the crash.
While these results suggest it may be drivers, not manufacturers of self-driving cars, who are held liable for auto accident losses, things may be changing. Scientific Atlantic indicates that as autopilot technologies advance and actually "take over" driving for motorists, it is likely that the car manufacturers will eventually become the ones responsible if something goes wrong.
Scientific Atlantic states: "When a computerized driver replaces a human one, experts say the companies behind the software and hardware sit in the legal liability chain-not the car owner or the person's insurance company. Eventually, and inevitably, the car makers will have to take the blame."
Computerized drivers have not replaced human drivers yet, and Tesla's autopilot clearly alerts motorists that it should not be a replacement. Evolving technology, however, will push ever more responsibility onto the in-vehicle tech and the law will have to evolve as the technology changes.
It remains to be seen what laws will be passed and what courts will rule when it comes to liability for crashes caused by autopilot vehicles. Any victim of an accident involving an autopilot car should talk with an attorney who is familiar with this evolving area of law. An attorney can help victims to determine who is liable and can help victims to argue that car-makers should be made to compensate victims for crash losses.