Who is responsible when Tesla Autopilot results in a crash?

Now that Tesla started releasing its over-the-air installation of Version 7.0 with Autopilot, Model S drivers will soon be experimenting with the new Autosteer, automatic lane changing, Traffic Aware Cruise Control, and automatic braking features. But what happens when the inevitable traffic accident occurs with Autopilot engaged?

America is a litigious society. Anybody can sue anyone, at any time, and about anything. Last week, a 2013 Tesla Model S not equipped with automatic braking crashed into a Google autonomous car near Google headquarters. It won’t be long before the courts will be asked to decide who is responsible if there is a crash while Autopilot is active.

When asked by Bloomberg about responsibility of traffic accidents with Autopilot engaged, Elon Musk skates around the issue and states it is important to distinguish between Autopilot and autonomous driving. His favorite analogy is to compare the Autopilot features to the auto pilot systems used by the airline industry. There is an assumption that there is always a pilot in the cockpit who is aware of the aircraft’s surroundings and is able to retake control at a moment’s notice if the need arises.

Similarly, the Tesla Autopilot system presents drivers with a visual and audible notification if it determines that there is not at least one hand on the wheel at all times. Musk told Bloomberg’s Betty Liu that the time when we could climb behind the wheel, program in a destination, and then go to sleep is still 5 to 6 years away.

Musk recently told BBC News that drivers should exercise caution while using Autopilot. “It should not hit pedestrians, hopefully,” he said. “It should handle them well.” Then he added that if the car is involved in a collision, the driver is still liable. “The driver cannot abdicate responsibility. That will come at some point in the future.”

He went on to say that at the present time, there are limitations to the software. “If there’s heavy snow it’s going to be harder for the system to work, so we’d advise caution. Essentially it’s like a person – how well can a person figure out what route they should take?”

Musk goes on to say,

“Over time it [Autopilot] will be better than a person. Long term it will be way better than a person. It never gets tired, it’s never had anything to drink, it’s never arguing with someone in the car. It’s not distracted.”

Musk was also careful to point out to Betty Liu that the company is very clear with customers. In the final analysis, it is they who are legally responsible for what the car does, not Tesla. But will that be enough to insulate Tesla from liability in the event of an accident? That remains to be seen, but anyone with litigation experience will probably be skeptical that the company’s words will protect it from traffic accident claims by third parties.


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