John Hall was driving on State Route 99 in Seattle when a driver in the oncoming lane turned directly in front of him. A human driver would have had only a fraction of a second to react to the dangerous situation—but John’s Tesla Model S P85D came equipped with a highly advanced autopilot program that slammed on the breaks before he even registered the danger. John said that he didn’t even have time to honk the horn or even “touch the brake” before the car came to a halt.
Tesla’s new autopilot program, called Autosteer, debuted in the company’s Model S cars earlier this month. The program isn’t intended to replace human drivers, but it can take over control of the car the instant that it detects a problem. Human drivers have a reaction time of approximately 1.5 seconds in dangerous situations, so a computer’s lightning-fast collision detection can make a world of difference in a high speed collision.
Can computers replace human instinct?
Even the most advanced computer can’t weigh the full consequences of choosing to slam on the brakes in the middle of dense traffic. What might have happened if John’s car had saved him from a head-on collision, but caused a pile-up as cars with human drivers failed to brake in time on the slick road? Can Tesla be sued for an injury or death if its autopilot makes a choice that a human driver wouldn’t have made? In the high-stakes, split-second chaos of an auto collision, is the fastest response always the best one?
What if John had decided not to use the Autosteer program, or he hadn’t yet downloaded the software update that included it? If he had ended up crashing his Tesla into that turning car, when an autopilot that might have prevented the accident was available to him, would he have been partially at fault for the accident?
It might surprise you to learn that in most states, there are few laws on the books about accidents that were caused by or could have been prevented by autopilot programs. When technology moves faster than the law can keep up, cases about emerging technologies are often decided in court before a law can be passed by the legislature.
The legal field is racing to keep up
The legal field is changing as fast as new technology is invented and released for the public’s use. Car manufacturers are exploring automated systems that can warn drivers about imminent collisions, recognize the rules of the road, and even take over the steering and braking systems. The goal is to make drivers safer by automating the processes that they’re just not fast enough to catch—but with hundreds of millions of cars on the road every day, auto makers will always struggle to keep up with user errors, software glitches, and other unexpected obstacles.
If you have been in an accident and you think that a faulty autopilot might have been to blame, you might want to consider consulting a lawyer who specializes in personal injury law. Even if there aren’t any relevant laws in your area yet, an experienced attorney might be able to pull information from similar cases to create a compelling argument that an accident could have been avoided had the technology worked as intended or as advertised.