Autopilot accidents raise questions about autonomous systems

Road safety advocates in Connecticut and around the country hope that autonomous systems like Tesla’s Autopilot feature will make the roads far less dangerous because they eliminate the human errors that play a role in virtually all motor vehicle accidents, but a series of deadly crashes involving autonomous cars and a study released in 2020 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggest that these hopes may be ill-founded. One such MVA occurred in Arizona in March 2018 when an autonomous SUV being evaluated by the ride-sharing firm Uber struck and killed a woman who was crossing the street.

IIHS study

After studying more than 5,000 reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about accidents that caused either death or serious injury, IIHS researchers concluded that autonomous systems would have only prevented about a third of the crashes. This was assuming that the technology would have worked perfectly in every situation. To have a more significant impact on accident rates, the IIHS says autonomous systems have to learn how to predict erratic behavior as well as humans and must be programmed to prioritize safety over speed and convenience.

Autopilot accidents

Tesla is widely seen as the leader in autonomous technology, but the Palo Alto-based company’s Autopilot feature may be causing as many accidents as it prevents. A Tesla Model 3 driver who was killed when his vehicle struck an overturned truck in California on May 5 is the fourth death linked to Autopilot. Tesla says the feature is not fully autonomous and drivers should remain vigilant at all times, but many of their customers ignore this advice. On May 11, police in California arrested a man who was sitting alone in the back of his Tesla while the vehicle was on a highway with Autopilot engaged. In 2018, investigators discovered that the driver of a Tesla Model X was using his cellphone to play a video game when he was killed in a crash.

Product liability lawsuits

If autonomous vehicle technology ever becomes ubiquitous, it could impact the insurance sector and civil litigation as much as it does road safety. Insurance companies may soon base coverage on manufacturers’ reputations rather than driving records, and accident victims could then sue technology companies instead of reckless drivers. Until that day comes, experienced personal injury attorneys will continue to advocate on behalf of their clients in civil court as they seek to hold negligent road users responsible for the injury, loss and damage they cause.