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Finding Fault With Self-Driving Cars

In Williston, Florida, a small town at the north end of the state, a rather unfortunate kind of history was made: for the first time, a fatal accident was linked to a self-driving car. The incident is still under investigation, but it raises questions about the state of self-driving software and just who is ultimately responsible for an accident when that software is in use.

The Future Of Driving

Fans of cutting-edge technology have said for years now that true self-driving technology is only a few years away, if that. High-tech companies like Google and Tesla have been developing the software and the sensors we need to make it happen, and even the big automakers have been adding self-driving assistance programs to their high-end vehicles.

Features like “Autonomous Emergency Braking” promise to slam on the brakes during those first milliseconds the human brain needs to notice and respond to a sudden emergency, and “Lane Keep Assist” doesn’t just keep track of whether you’re drifting into another lane, it can gently steer you back towards the center of your own.

Tesla, the pet project of billionaire Elon Musk, has leaped past these early examples of self-driving technology and provided the drivers of their high-end luxury vehicles with Autopilot, a fully automated driving program which takes the wheel and can operate entirely without driver input. Autopilot is still technically in beta testing, but then Tesla is a company founded on taking bold risks.

The Unfortunate Facts

On May 7, 2016, an Ohio native was driving his Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode through Florida when a semi truck took a left turn across his lane. Rather than stopping or slowing down, the Model S continued forward, shearing off its top half as it struck the trailer and then drifting off the road, colliding with two fences and a pole, and then finally coming to a halt.

According to a blog post released by Tesla, the reason Autopilot failed in this instance is because the bright white side of the semi trailer looked too much like the brightly lit sky, and so it ignored the trailer when calculating how to avoid running into anything.

So here’s the biggest question in this case: who is at fault for the accident? Is it the semi driver for turning too early, is it the Model S driver for not taking control of his vehicle, or is it Tesla for offering an Autopilot program which could be fooled by a white trailer?

The Liability Issue

Aside from Tesla, the self-driving assistance programs currently available come with some very specific limitations. The programs from different companies will do more or less than from others, but in every single case you’ll see some fine print attached: “This program is not a replacement for good driving. Keep aware of your actions and your surroundings.”

In other words, while these driver’s assistance features can halfway automate the driving experience, the person behind the wheel is still the first and last person responsible for safety. Thus, the reason why these warnings and limitations exist is so the car’s manufacturer can avoid any liability for an accident.

So what about a completely automatic program like Tesla Autopilot? Does that make the manufacturer responsible, or will Tesla argue that the driver could and should have taken back control?

Technology enthusiasts have long touted self-driving cars as being the way of the future. They’ll sometimes admit that automatic driving won’t have a perfect success record, but then point out that it doesn’t need to be perfect – it only has to be safer overall than human driving. But with liability for accidents shifting from drivers to manufacturers, that’s the wrong metric to use: self-driving vehicles don’t have to be safer than human driving, they have to be safe enough to avoid lawsuits.

Attorney David Goldman has a strong belief that everyone should be treated fairly and those with the means should do what they can to bring justice in all areas of our society. That belief has led him to help Florida's injured from being taken advantage of by corporations and insurance companies. Since 1989 David Goldman has been fighting for the rights of Floridians both as an attorney and by personally supporting our community.

Finding Fault With Self-Driving Cars

Goldman Babboni Fernandez
Murphy & Walsh

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