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What If Your Car Drives You Into An Accident?

Florida continues to plunge ahead into the future with no less an organization than the American military itself testing out the usefulness of self-driving vehicles on our state roads. As the military experiments with this technology, they are taking every possible safe-guard to ensure that their soldiers and other skilled staff are safe, as are the public. Meanwhile in California, Google itself continues to experiment, test and readjust their designs on their own 100%, fully self-driving cars.

Then we get into the middle, with the already quite futuristic electrical cars of Tesla. Recent innovations to the Tesla cars have introduced some self-driving features into these vehicles. However, unlike the American military and Google, Tesla’s cars are already street legal, and anyone with the funds can buy them and use these self-driving features.

In the United States, this has already resulted in three documented accidents, with one of those accidents, on May 7th, occurring right here in Florida. Joshua Brown, age 40, of Ohio, was driving his Telsa Model S, and decided to use the Autopilot feature of the car to let it drive itself. However, the car’s self-driving features are not quite as robust as what either Google or the American military use. Google, for example, uses a technology known as LIDAR, which is a laser technology similar to radar, in order to detect solid objects ahead. The Tesla system, however, relies primarily on cameras. Unfortunately for Joshua Brown, he engaged his car’s self-driving system during a bright, cloudy day with a white sky. When his car came up on a white trailer from a large truck, the whiteness of the trailer was lost against the white sky, and car’s systems thought the road was clear. Joshua’s car drove straight into—and under—the trailer, causing his death. Had a LIDAR system been installed, it would have detected a solid object ahead and not relied solely on camera technology to drive itself.

Fortunately, the other two accidents that have occurred with the Tesla Model S self-driving system have not been fatal, but they have shown that relying primarily on a camera system to let a car’s driving computer make judgments may not be comprehensive enough.

But what are a person’s legal options in a case like this?

Are You At Fault?

In the specific case of Tesla, the company has issued warnings to all Tesla drivers from the very beginning that the Autopilot mode of their cars is not yet considered complete, and is in a beta testing phase. Beta testing means that the software is now nearing the final stages of being “feature complete” and are being tested in as close to real-world conditions as possible in order to better help the company by taking that data and using it to refine both the software and the hardware behind self-driving cars.

So, for the moment, because self-driving cars have not formally gone into mainstream distribution, there are no laws actually governing blame and compensation in these incidents. Until a new historical precedent is established in court, the only rules the courts have to go by in current automobile accident cases are the traditional ones. The court must look at who was behind the wheel and what they were doing at the time of the incident and then determine blame based on that.

For the moment, this means that, at least in 2016, because of the beta test nature of Tesla’s self-driving cars, and the fact that the company itself has said that the technology is “not yet ready for prime time,” those drivers that choose to use the Autopilot feature are still quite likely to be considered legally behind the wheel, and therefore at fault should the car get into an accident.

The Future

The Tesla case is a unique one in that even Tesla itself doesn’t recommend using the self-driving function of the car for everything. They urge drivers to think of it as a more enhanced version of cruise control, that should only be implemented while the car is already in motion, but that drivers should still maintain alertness of the environment at all times.

Things are going to change in a few years once more advances, such as Google’s cars, go into mainstream use. The Google car, for example, is currently being tested as a 100% self-driving car, with the more advanced test models removing steering wheels entirely. When this happens, and people don’t even have the option of taking control of the wheel, what will happen then?

One thing that Tesla accidents are showing us is that the technology, while exciting, is still not yet ready to completely trust. It’s also put the spotlight on how American traffic law needs to start looking at all the outcomes of this technology and setting new precedents for how to resolve these issues in court when things go wrong.

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.

What If Your Car Drives You Into An Accident?

Goldman Babboni Fernandez
Murphy & Walsh

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