On March 23, 2018, a self driving Tesla SUV crashed while the vehicle was operating on autopilot in Mountain View, California. According to a spokesperson for Tesla, Walter Huang, 38, a software engineer for Apple, did not have his hands on the steering wheel for approximately six seconds before the fatal crash occurred.
Tesla maintains that its “autopilot” system can brake, accelerate, control speed, change lanes and self-park, but does require that the operator must keep his or her eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel so that they can control the vehicle to prevent accidents.
Tesla contends that in the March 23rd accident, Mr. Huang took no evasive measures to prevent the Model X SUV from colliding with a concrete divider. This despite allegedly receiving “several visual and one audible hands on warning earlier in the drive”. Photographic evidence shows that the front of the SUV was destroyed, the roof torn from the car and the front wheels were off the vehicle and on the roadway. Additionally, the vehicle went on fire, but Tesla alleges that Mr. Huang was not in the vehicle when this occurred. Further, the accident was worsened as a result of a missing or damaged safety shield at the end of the barrier, which is designed to reduce the impact into the divider.
Tesla was quick to note that the company was “devastated’ by the event and expressed their sympathy for Mr. Huang’s family and friends. The fatal car crash follows an accident earlier in the month involving a self-driving Volvo SUV being test driven by Uber. In that tragic event, an Arizona resident was crossing the road walking her bicycle when she was struck by the autonomous vehicle and killed. As a result of that fatal accident, Uber has now been banned from resuming self-driving tests in Arizona. This is believed to be the first time that an autonomous vehicle was involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian.
Clearly, these accidents raise several questions as to whether operators can trust self-driving cars. There is no doubt that self-driving cars are the way of the future, but at the moment, there is undoubtedly the risk of complacency, as these autonomous vehicles perform so many functions that drivers are used to doing themselves, including the obvious cruise control (which has been in existence for at least twenty years), but more recently functions which were never autonomous before, such as lane keeping, automatic braking, and various collision avoidance technologies. Matthew Avery, the director of Thatcham Research, which tests new vehicles for the insurance industry, notes that drivers must know what they are utilizing, that there is “a clear distinction between “hands-on” and “hands-off” set ups. “There is a risk that drivers become accustomed to them, and maybe think they’re automated when they’re not”, says Avery.
In 2016, a Tesla owner was killed when he did not observe a bus crossing in the path of his car. The NTSB determined that the Tesla autopilot was partially responsible for the accident. In this fatal accident, the Board found that in 37 minutes of the car’s operation, the driver had his hands on the steering wheel for only 25 seconds! Because of that tragic occurrence, Tesla introduced safeguards which would turn off autopilot and stop the car if the driver did not have his hands on the wheel for an extended period.
Many auto manufacturers in addition to Tesla, including Mercedes, Audi (Its’ A8 model) and Volvo, have some autonomous features on some models which allow for completely hands off driving in particular circumstances. However, these automobile manufacturers stress that these vehicles are not created to be completely autonomous, and the operator must be ready to take over control of the vehicle at any moment.
If you or a family member are involved in serious automobile accident, contact the car accident attorneys at the Law Office of Mark A. Siesel in White Plains, New York for a free consultation to discuss your case in detail.