First Tesla Autopilot Fatality Draws NHTSA Investigation

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NHTSA Launches Investigation into Tesla Autopilot Fatality

A Tesla Autopilot enthusiast was killed in May when an 18-wheeler pulled out in front of his Tesla Model S, which was being driven with the Autopilot system engaged. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has opened an investigation in order to determine if the system worked as was expected.

This investigation will be interesting to watch, as the technology involved is so new. Despite often being mislabeled as a self-driving or autonomous driving feature, Tesla’s Autopilot system is really more like an advanced version of cruise control intended to lessen the driver’s workload and meant only for highway driving. Warnings and systems require the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to take control at any time.

In the May accident, 45-year-old Joshua Brown was driving his Model S down a Florida highway when a semi-truck “drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S.” Tesla’s statement on the accident goes on to describe a situation where a brightly lit sky and the white side of a tractor-trailer with a high ride height created a deadly combination where the Autopilot system was unable to distinguish between the two. It appears the driver also made no attempt to slow or stop, and questions remain about whether or not he may actually have been watching a movie.

Unfortunately, the high ride height collided with Brown’s vehicle at windshield height and the car continued all the way under and through the truck’s undercarriage space. The roof of the Tesla was torn completely off, and Brown became the first death in which the Autopilot system was engaged.

Is The Tesla Autopilot System To Blame?

Tesla has been quick to note that Autopilot was engaged for 130 million driving miles before this first death occurred. That number is significantly higher than would be expected based on the average 94 million miles driven for each vehicle accident fatality. That information could indicate the Tesla Autopilot system may actually make drivers safer; however, it could also be an indicator of the type of driver who makes up the clientele base for electric vehicles like the Model S.

The NHTSA will not only be considering whether the system worked as expected but also whether or not Tesla has misled customers to believe the system is more autonomous than it really is. Despite the company’s descriptions of their extensive systems intended to keep drivers engaged, there is growing concern about the gap between drivers’ faith in the system and the actual, true capabilities of Autopilot. In Switzerland, a Model S driver actually hit a van, claiming he believed the Autopilot would stop the vehicle without driver involvement prior to such an accident. Part of the work of the NHTSA will be determining if Tesla misled its customers and also whether they did enough to make the driver’s responsibilities to the system clear.

Over the past week, additional Autopilot accidents have come to light. If you or someone you know has been injured while using the Autopilot system, you may have a claim for damages. Though the technology and situation may be new, the auto accident attorneys at The Lee Steinberg Law Firm have decades of experience winning cases on behalf of clients injured in crashes that occurred due to faulty technology or parts. Call 1-800-LEE-FREE today for your free consultation.