Semi-autonomous Crash Using Autopilot Ends in Recommendations and More Questions

September 22, 2017

An emphasis has been placed on the “semi” of semi-autonomous vehicles. The National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) highlighted the importance of drivers maintaining awareness of driving conditions and interaction with the vehicle while “self-driving” cars are engaged in autopilot. Their conclusion and subsequent recommendations could prompt changes in regulations for future semi-autonomous vehicles.
This determination follows the investigation of a 2016 deadly crash involving a Tesla Model S where the driver was found to be over-reliant on the vehicle’s automation capabilities for speed and lane departure. Joshua Brown’s vehicle drove underneath a tractor trailer at 74 mph in Florida when the tractor trailer made a left hand turn across Brown’s lane. The car went underneath the trailer, shearing off the top of the automobile. Reports indicate that both drivers had at least 10 seconds in which to recognize each other and make corrective maneuvers.
Chief among the concerns of the NTSB is the fact that the driver of the Tesla was warned seven times visually and 6 times audibly to put his hands on the steering wheel while the autopilot was engaged. The driver either ignored the warnings or did just the required amount to silence the warnings and continue driving.

He kept his hands on the steering wheel for only 25 seconds of the last 40 minutes of the drive, and did not brake, steer, or take any actions to avoid the crash.

Tesla’s autopilot function will eventually shut the car down safely if the driver is not deemed attentive by ignoring the warnings the car issues. However, in this instance, the NTSB found that the design of the parameters to monitor driver engagement were not aligned with the intended limitations of the autopilot’s functionality. While Tesla’s intention was to create tools to enhance the safety of human driving, it would seem that people are solely depending on the car’s technology to do the actual driving instead.
While the driver of the tractor trailer was ultimately found to be at fault, and that Tesla’s systems operated as they were designed, the NTSB made several recommendations to help steer the future of semi-autonomous vehicles in a safer direction. The recommendations were made to government agencies and auto manufacturers alike. The underlying goal is to implement tighter software parameters to balance the autopilot functions with human interaction and/or awareness. Under the current design of Tesla’s autopilot function, drivers are able to rely too heavily on the technology and disengage from the responsibility of driving.
As regulations adapt and shift the responsibility of driving actions and awareness from humans to the vehicles themselves, the liability for accidents will shift as well. While there are no reports of a semi-autonomous vehicle being in an accident due to system failures (there was one recounted incident where the driver ultimately claimed fault), questions are being asked about where the fault will lie and, from a liability standpoint, whose insurance will ultimately be on the hook. This will spawn a new dynamic between drivers, manufacturers, and insurance companies. While insurance rates will likely decrease for drivers who are shedding some of their burden for accidents, that risk will be taken on by the manufacturers and the technology the manufacturers develop.
The shift in responsibility will require all stakeholders in the process to be active. Historically, auto manufacturers simply built cars to spec with limited technology for the driver to interact with. Even then, the technology was for creature comforts like air conditioning, stereos, and power functions. With the transition to technology focused vehicles that arguably started with integrated GPS systems, a more substantial knowledge transfer has to take place between the manufacturer and the driver. While the cars may come with an owner’s manual and instructions, the onus may fall to the car dealer who is the connector between driver and automobile. This added element is cause for concern as it has been found that not all car salespeople are positioned for this added responsibility. And, in states like North Carolina where most car manufacturers are not allowed to sell directly to consumers, the private dealership adds another hand in the liability pot when an accident involving a semi-autonomous car occurs.