Tesla self-driving vehicles face legal, regulatory scrutiny after fatal accidents in Autopilot mode

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by Eric Pearson

Tesla Motors is facing a lawsuit in China filed by the family of a Beijing man who died while riding in a Tesla vehicle that was allegedly being controlled by the car’s “Autopilot” system. The crash was one of two fatal car accidents involving Tesla self-driving cars so far in 2016.

According to the lawsuit, the 23 year old driver was riding in a Tesla model in January 2016 on a highway in China’s Hebei province when his vehicle struck a cleaning truck from behind. The driver of the vehicle was killed in the accident. The victim’s family alleges that the Tesla Autopilot system was engaged when the accident occurred. However, Tesla says that there is no way of knowing whether the Autopilot in the self-driving vehicle was turned on because the vehicle was heavily damaged in the accident.

In May 2016, an Ohio man died in Florida when his self-driven Tesla Model S struck the side of a truck while the vehicle was in Autopilot mode. Tesla has stated that there was no reaction either from the driver or the vehicle prior to the collision.

In testimony before Congress, Tesla officials pointed to two possible causes for the Florida crash. The automaker said that the vehicle’s radar and camera input for its automatic emergency braking system may have failed to detect the truck before the collision. The company also said that the vehicle’s radar and camera may have detected the truck, but failed to engage the braking system as part of a feature designed to “tune out” roadside structures in order to prevent false braking.

In August, a Texas man was involved in an accident east of Dallas while driving a Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode. According to police reports, the vehicle failed to navigate a turn while traveling on a rural highway and struck a cable guardrail multiple times. The driver says that he was not seriously injured in the accident and does not plan to file a lawsuit against Tesla. However, the man’s insurance company says that it is considering whether to take legal action over damages related to the accident. Tesla self-driving models have also been involved in non-fatal accidents in Montana and Pennsylvania this year.

Tesla describes its Autopilot system as “traffic-aware cruise control,” meaning that the system is not fully autonomous. The vehicles carry warning notices advising drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times in order to avoid an accident. Tesla disables the Autopilot system by default and requires drivers to acknowledge that the self-driving mode is still in its testing phase before it can be enabled in the vehicle.

Legal experts say that the family of the Ohio man killed in the Florida crash may still have grounds to file a lawsuit against Tesla. According to some experts, the driver of the vehicle may not have been adequately warned about the risks of the Tesla Autopilot mode because he may have been led to believe that the system was more able to operate autonomously than was actually the case. Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, has stated that the carmaker’s Autopilot system is “probably better than humans at this point in highway driving”.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the Tesla Model S was traveling 74 miles-per-hour in a 65 M.P.H. zone at the time of the fatal Florida crash. The NTSB confirmed that the vehicle’s Traffic-Aware Cruise Control and Autosteer functions were engaged at the time of the accident. So far, the agency has not made any determination regarding the cause of the Florida crash.

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