Did Elon Musk’s determination to stay ahead of the competition compromise the safety of a Tesla owner who died in a crash while operating his car in self-driving mode? Last year, the tech billionaire announced that Tesla would equip its Model S sedan with Autopilot, an innovative self-driving feature the company was still testing. Then, on May 7, news came that Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old Tesla owner from Ohio, had been killed in a crash in Williston, Florida, while Autopilot was operating his car.
According to reports, the vehicle’s sensor system failed to distinguish a large, white tractor-trailer from the bright sky, so the car maintained full speed as it ran beneath the truck’s undercarriage, while the trailer impacted the sedan’s windshield and tore off the top of the vehicle.
Tesla released a statement saying the company warns drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times and, although “Autopilot is getting better all the time…it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.” The driver of the tractor-trailer made statements suggesting that Mr. Brown had been watching a Harry Potter film on a video screen at the time of the crash.
So, who is at fault for this crash? Certainly Mr. Brown bears some responsibility. As a technology executive and Tesla enthusiast, he was a sophisticated consumer who should have known the limitations of the Autopilot program. But was his apparent misuse of the technology a foreseeable consequence of Tesla’s release of technology that simply wasn’t ready? In other words, is Tesla liable because the company presented its customers with too great a temptation to resist?
Liability will be a matter for the courts to decide: since self-driving technology is so new, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still hasn’t come up with regulations to cover its use. One thing is for certain: your driver’s ed instructor’s advice to “keep your eyes on the road” remains as pertinent as ever.
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