In a recent post, we reported on a South Florida auto accident involving a 2016 Tesla Model S which claimed the life of Omar Awan, a 48-year-old father of five. Although traffic accident fatalities are an almost routine occurrence in the Greater Miami area, this accident became newsworthy for two reasons: 1) a malfunction of the vehicle's electronic door handles prevented rescuers from removing the victim after the driver-side airbag failed to deflate after inflating in response to the accident and 2) the lithium-ion battery that provided power to the vehicle not only caught fire immediately after the accident but reignited twice after its original fire had been extinguished. We now report the initial findings of a second accident involving a vehicle manufactured by Tesla Motors, but this accident could have implications that reach well beyond the accident itself.
On Friday morning (March 1st), a 2018 Tesla Model 3 struck the driver-side of the trailer unit of a tractor-trailer as the tractor-trailer driver was making a left turn. The impact carried enough force to shear away the roof of the Tesla and cause the death of its driver, later identified as 50-year-old Jeremy Beren Banner. Far from being "just another fatality traffic accident," this tragedy raises an issue that could affect both the commercial success of the Tesla Motors Model 3 and the future of "autonomous" or, as they are better known, "driverless" vehicles.
Tesla calls the hardware, and software, responsible for its vehicles' "autonomous" operation capability the "Autopilot." According to Tesla's website, its Autopilot system is based on
"Eight surround cameras provide 360 degrees of visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors … allowing for detection of both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system. A forward-facing radar … that is able to see through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead …"
The "input" from these devices is processed into "driving instructions" by
… a new onboard computer with over 40 times the computing power of the previous generation runs the new Tesla-developed neural net for vision, sonar and radar processing software. Together, this system provides a view of the world that a driver alone cannot access, seeing in every direction simultaneously, and on wavelengths that go far beyond the human senses."
At this time, it is unknown if the driver had activated his Tesla's Autopilot in its "full autonomous" (self-driving) mode, in its "semi-autonomous" (collision-avoidance / automatic braking) mode, or even if the system had been activated at all. However, the mere possibility that a failure involving a vehicle operating in autonomous mode was enough to have prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to send accident investigation teams to Florida to assist in the investigation.
Today's crash is the latest accident involving a Tesla Motors vehicle. In addition to the previously-mentioned accident that took the life of Omar Awan, other fatal accidents include:
A May 2018 single-vehicle accident that killed two Fort Lauderdale high school students in a high-speed crash involving a 2014 Tesla Model S. In that accident, the NTSB investigation focused on the battery fire that occurred immediately after the crash. The accident led to a lawsuit against Tesla over the battery's safety.
On May 7th of 2016, Joshua Brown was killed near Williston FL when his Tesla Model S struck a tractor-trailer that was making a left turn. Brown's Tesla Autopilot was in its full-autonomous mode when the accident occurred.
In addition to the above, we must also mention the incident at this year's Consumer Electronics Show where a Tesla Model S (in full-autonomous mode) struck a robot made by Promobot (operating it its full-autonomous mode). Since the Model S did not stop after the impact, this may represent the first documented fully-robotic "hit and run."
Liability in autonomous vehicle accidents
As we have discussed in other blog pasts, and on other pages of our website, the arrival of "driverless" and "computer assisted" vehicles on our highways will raise a number of legal issues that have yet to be addressed by the courts, such as:
- Is the driver fully liable under the law if he or she is involved in an accident while operating a vehicle in its full-autonomous mode?
- What is the extent of the liability of a software provider in such accidents?
- Will the doctrines of "contributory" and/or "comparative" negligence apply in autonomous vehicle accidents and, if so, how will they be assessed across multiple defendants?
- Will "traditional" tort law be adapted to fit the environment of the "computer age" of transportation or will existing common law gradually be discarded and then rewritten to better-suit a new legal environment?
At The Doan Law Firm we are closely following these, and other, developments with respect as to how they can be used to our clients' advantage.
If you have been injured in an accident and suspect that "autonomous" or "driverless" technology may have contributed to your injury, we invite you to contact The Doan Law Firm to arrange a free review of your accident injury case and a discussion of the legal options that may be available to you.
As a national personal injury law practice with offices located throughout the country, we have access to experts in software engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning and other emerging autonomous vehicle technologies that we feel will play a greater and greater role in successful personal injury lawsuits involving both personal and commercial transportation accidents.
Improve your position in your accident injury case by contacting The Doan Law Firm today!