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NHTSA Investigates Fatal Tesla Autopilot Crash

The fatal May 7 crash of a Tesla Model S traveling in self-driving mode is under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA. According to reports, Tesla enthusiast Joshua Brown died when the car’s Autopilot program failed to detect the broad side of a white tractor-trailer and proceeded across a highway at full speed. NHTSA has informed Tesla of a formal inquiry into Brown’s crash and two non-fatal accidents reported in July, which may be connected to failures in either the Forward Collision Warning or the Automatic Emergency Braking systems.

NHTSA’s investigation may shed some light on liability for Brown’s death. Tesla’s Autopilot mode is in its testing phase, and the company has warned users to remain vigilant and keep their hands on the wheel when employing Autopilot to operate the vehicle. The driver of the tractor-trailer made statements after the crash suggesting that Brown’s attention could have been on a video monitor displaying a Harry Potter movie. However, even if Brown was not paying proper attention at the time of the crash, Tesla could be held at least partially liable if a court determines Brown’s inattention was a foreseeable risk of installing Autopilot before thoroughly testing the system.

Is Tesla too glib following driver’s death?

Tesla was quick to stress the comparative safety of their vehicles, citing studies that show one motor vehicle fatality for every 94 million miles driven in conventional vehicles versus one death in 130 million miles driven by Tesla customers. Perhaps this is true, but outside observers might conclude Tesla is taking the Brown death too lightly. The company apparently did not even consider the fatal crash a “material event” worth reporting to its investors. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Securities and Exchange Commission is probing whether the company broke federal securities regulations by failing to report the crash to investors.

It’s hard not to view Tesla’s conduct after the crash as an extension of the company’s hubris before the crash. Self-driving technology poses immense engineering challenges, and Tesla’s plan to gather data by having customers beta-test its program seems to have been shortsighted if not callous. NHTSA’s investigation is likely to impact the use of self-driving technology for the foreseeable future.

If you’ve suffered a serious injury in an Atlanta-area car accident, speak with a dedicated attorney at McMenamy Law LLC to learn more about your rights.

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