NTSB Details Tesla’s Role in First Self-Driving Car Fatality

The National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing today concerning the Florida self-driving car accident in May 2016 that resulted in the nation’s first fatality involving an auto-driving system. According to media reports, the semi-autonomous driving system had a “major role” in the crash because of “operational limitations”.

The NTSB said that the autopilot system did not do enough to require the driver to pay attention to the road. It also found that the monitoring of driver attention was inadequate because touching the steering wheel was a “poor surrogate” for being ready to take over driving. According to the NTSB, the Tesla driver had at least 10 seconds to observe and respond to the truck it hit.

Tesla also did not place appropriate limits on the operation of the system. Drivers could use the self-driving features at up to 90 miles per hour and the system did not limit operation to certain roadways despite its inability to reliably detect cross traffic. In the accident, the semi made a left hand turn across a divided highway and the autopilot system failed to recognize and avoid the truck.

A certain amount of blame will no doubt be placed on the driver. According to the data, the driver had the system engaged for 37 of the 41 minutes of the trip and only had his hands on the wheel while Autopilot 7 times for a total of 25 seconds. The federal panel said that the driver placed too much reliance on the car’s technology.

The NTSB issued a preliminary report in July 2016 with the details of the accident, including photos of the minor collision traffic to the semitrailer and a photo of the passenger car. The car struck the truck, which was making a left hand turn, at a 90 degree angle. The driver was using the Tesla Model S advanced driver assistance features and was traveling at 74 mph (in a 65 mph zone) just prior to the accident.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a separate investigation and concluded that no recall was warranted. Tesla has reportedly made changes to its system as a result of the crash.

This case is being closely watched by the car industry, automotive enthusiasts and personal injury lawyers. Self-driving cars are expected to become increasingly commonplace on the roads over the next decade or two as automobile manufacturers release cars for sale and regulators approve them for operation on the role.  The implications on a personal injury lawyer’s practice are obvious.

The second reason we are watching this case is because of our practice representing employees reporting delayed recalls or other safety issues pursuant to the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act.  Businesses in rapidly shifting industries have been known to challenge or break the law, so we expect there will be quite a few auto whistleblowers reporting defects in self-driving cars as they are released on to the road.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act (SELF DRIVE Act) to provide authority to the NHTSA to regulate the technology and start the process of developing regulations for the use of self-driving technology on the road.  The bill will need to pass the Senate before it can be sent to President Trump for signature.