By William Gray
Imagine a world with less car accidents. Where one could step into a car after a long day’s work and not worry about staying awake behind the wheel. Or even a night out with friends without having to worry about who the designated driver is. These days are not far off. We now live in an advancing age of technology where a new gadget seems to be created every day. Some of these gadgets are capable of keeping us safe by accomplishing tasks that were previously restricted to human input. One of these advances deals with the autonomous capabilities of motor vehicles.
It is now common place for modern vehicles to be equipped with some level of autonomous capability. This type of technology allows vehicles to accomplish tasks traditionally required of the human driver. Such tasks may include lane-shifting assistance, cruise control, or autonomous parking. The concept of the highly autonomous vehicle (HAV) have revolutionized the automobile industry. Now-a-days every major automobile manufacturer, ranging from BMW to Google, have invested in autonomous vehicle technology. This then begs the questions: why do we need autonomous vehicles on the road? Won’t they make the roads more dangerous? This ideology was commonplace about five years ago when HAVs were first breaking into the industry. However, experts today now believe HAVs may be able to have a reversed effect. Many now theorize that, with the inclusion of all the new autonomous safety measures, HAVs may actually make the road safer. However, some experts still stick to their skepticism.
One major setback to the HAV industry occurred on May 7, 2016 outside of Williston, Florida. On this day, Joshua Brown, 40, was driving with his Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Office of Defects Investigation’s (ODI) accident report, Brown’s Tesla failed to register the white sides of a tractor trailer truck causing a fatal accident. The report will further say that Brown, two minutes before the incident, increased the adaptive cruise control to 74 mph. This means, Brown should have been able to see the semi-truck at least 7 seconds before the accident when he was still 2.5 football fields away. However, Brown was 100% relying on The Tesla’s Autopilot mode, which was still in its Beta version, to operate the vehicle. First responders also found a portable DVD player playing Harry Potter when they arrived, leading them to believe Brown was watching the DVD instead of watching the road. Recently, the NHTSA has exonerated Tesla from responsibility in the accident. Before entering Autopilot mode, Tesla notifies the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and stay attentive to be prepared to disengaged Autopilot mode and manually take over control of the car. In the events that unfolded on May 7, 2016, Joshua Brown did not abide by Tesla’s policy and took his hands and attention off the wheel. For this reason, Tesla was exonerated from liability.
The NHTSA has adopted a regulatory policy classifying HAVs into distinct levels of autonomous capability. Teslas, with their current Autopilot mode, are classified as a Level 2 autonomous vehicle, meaning the driver and the vehicle share responsibility in operating the car. Some tasks may be accomplished by the car’s computer, while others remain delegated to the human driver. Tesla’s Autopilot mode is currently equipped with autosteer capability, traffic-aware cruise control, autolane changing, autopark, and summon which has the vehicle pull out of a parking space while the driver remains outside. Critics claim Tesla should change the name of their autonomous mode because it misleads the driver into believing that they are free from responsibility behind the wheel.
Although they were exonerated from liability in the May 7, 2016 incident, the Tesla name took a massive hit with the negative publicity regarding their ability to compete in the HAV market. Over, the data collected by the NHTSA during the accident investigation revealed something amazing. Before being equipped with Autopilot, Teslas were involved in 1.3 accidents per million miles of driving. However, after installing Teslas with the Autopilot program, the accident rate fell to 0.8 crashes per million miles. This number would represent one crash every 93 years of driving 13,500 miles per year. This could potentially mean that if all vehicles were equipped with autonomous technology similar to Tesla’s, we could experience as few as 1 motor vehicle accident in each of our lifetimes. If the goal of creating HAVs was to promote safer roads, then, regardless of past negative press, Tesla may have found the key to the solution.
Student Bio: William Gray is currently a 2L at Suffolk University Law School and a Staff Member of the Journal of High Technology Law. He holds a B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Criminal Justice from Quinnipiac University.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.