Authorities in the U.S. have begun investigating the death of a man after he collided with a lorry in his Tesla Model S while it was using the autopilot mode. Although the legal liability may not lie with Tesla, this marks the first time that a person has died while being driven around by a self-piloting car.
Tesla introduced its auto-pilot feature in October last year, allowing drivers to let the car take over and control speed, lane positioning and distance from the cars in-front on the motorway. It quickly became a popular feature and though Tesla said the responsibility of the car still lay with the driver, even with auto-pilot on, it proved very effective at keeping people safe.
However it is not perfect. In this instance it seems to have been a lack of contrast between a bright white tractor trailer and the sky behind it. Because it was unable to tell the difference, it didn’t apply the brakes when the trailer crossed in-front of the unfortunate man’s Tesla and it didn’t slow down before hitting the trailer.
Source: Supremo El Curioso/Youtube
“The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S,” said a Tesla spokesperson.
This height difference meant that many of the Model S’ safety features like crumple zones and airbags would have deployed, potentially saving the life of the occupant.
Although there is no legal framework for using auto-pilot features on the road just yet, this incident will raise questions of liability when an autonomous vehicle appears to be at fault. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will now investigate the matter, to determine if Tesla deserves any blame for the incident.
As it stands many governments and authorities around the world are trying to hash out a legal basis for autonomous vehicles. Any one using such features is still considered legally responsibility for the actions of their vehicle for now, but that may change in the future as more and more people prefer to be driven with their hands off the wheel.
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KitGuru Says: This is tragic news and terrible timing for proponents of driverless car technology. The statistics suggest it could have major ramifications for road safety, possibly saving as many lives as the introduction of seat belts. There will be hiccups though and unfortunately when you’re talking about driving at high speeds, there’s always a chance that those accidents will be terrible.