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First Death in Semi-Autonomous Car

In an April post, “Accidents with Driverless Cars,” we discussed the reality of driverless cars (also referred to as hands-free cars or semi-autonomous cars) including who is at fault in a driverless car accident and what is the future of self-driving cars.

Unfortunately, in May, Florida became the first state with a known fatality in a self-driving car. A man was killed when his Tesla Model S electric sedan collided with a semitrailer truck on a Florida highway. According to government records, the driver’s car cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky and didn’t automatically activate its brakes.

As a result of the accident, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a preliminary evaluation into the fatal crash of a Tesla electric car that had its “Autopilot” feature engaged at the time of the incident. They are looking to see if Tesla’s Autopilot failed to detect a tractor-trailer turning in front of the electric car. NHTSA will be reviewing the design and performance of the system aboard the Tesla Model S sedan.

In addition, a day after the NHTSA investigation announcement, there was a second reported crash of a Tesla Model X in “Autopilot” mode which crashed and rolled over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

NHTSA was already expected to release its new safety federal guidelines for autonomous vehicles (automated vehicles) in July or later this summer and the agency’s senior administrator, Dr. Mark Rosekind, said to expect something different from the regulators to reflect the disrupting aspect of self-driving technologies. He says they are looking at four main areas – deployment, guidelines for state policies, clarifying process terminology and providing new tools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Florida’s legislation, passed in 2012, declared the legislative intent to encourage the safe development, testing and operation of motor vehicles with autonomous technology on public roads of the state and found that the state does not prohibit nor specifically regulate the testing or operation of autonomous technology in motor vehicles on public roads. Florida’s 2016 legislation expands the allowed operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Two such Florida Statutes are as follows:

316.85 Autonomous vehicles;

  1. A person who possesses a valid driver license may operate an autonomous vehicle in autonomous mode on roads in this state if the vehicle is equipped with autonomous technology, as defined in s. 316.003.
  2. For purposes of this chapter, unless the context otherwise requires, a person shall be deemed to be the operator of an autonomous vehicle operating in autonomous mode when the person causes the vehicle’s autonomous technology to engage, regardless of whether the person is physically present in the vehicle while the vehicle is operating in autonomous mode.

History.—s. 3, ch. 2012-111; s. 107, ch. 2012-174; s. 7, ch. 2016-181; s. 12, ch. 2016-239.

319.145 Autonomous vehicles.—

  1. An autonomous vehicle registered in this state must continue to meet applicable federal standards and regulations for such motor vehicle. The vehicle must:
    1. Have a system to safely alert the operator if an autonomous technology failure is detected while the autonomous technology is engaged. When an alert is given, the system must:
      1. Require the operator to take control of the autonomous vehicle; or
      2. If the operator does not, or is not able to, take control of the autonomous vehicle, be capable of bringing the vehicle to a complete stop.
    2. Have a means, inside the vehicle, to visually indicate when the vehicle is operating in autonomous mode.
    3. Be capable of being operated in compliance with the applicable traffic and motor vehicle laws of this state.
  2. Federal regulations promulgated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shall supersede this section when found to be in conflict with this section.

History.—s. 4, ch. 2012-111; s. 108, ch. 2012-174; s. 9, ch. 2016-181; s. 14, ch. 2016-239.

It is important to remember, as consumers, that self-driving and autonomous cars are in their infancy. There is still much to be learned about the technology. We are not the Jetsons – the 1960’s futuristic animated television show, where they depicted the future of cars – a truly hands-free, flying car that folds into a brief case. While the manufacturers market autonomous, semi-autonomous, auto pilot, hands free, etc., drivers should not be misled by these terms (ex. auto pilot is auto assist, not it takes over for you). Drivers should always keep their hands on the wheel and they should always be prepared to take over at any time.