Tesla Accident Highlights Issues With Self-Driving Cars and Insurance


More than 2,500 people die each month in automobile accidents in the U.S. However, the widely reported death of one “driver” in a Tesla on “autopilot” versus 18-wheel tractor-trailer accident in Florida highlights some big issues with the inevitable future with self-driving cars and auto insurance.

Vehicles are far safer than they used to be. The advent of seat belts, air bags and anti-lock brakes reduced the fatality rates considerably. Parking assistance cameras and sensors have reduced minor collisions.

Self-driving and autopilot features being tested offer the further promise of collision avoidance, but they did not prevent the Florida incident, which shattered the illusion many had of perception. It also offered a stark reminder that there is a lot of uncertainty and room for improvement with the autopilot or self-driving technology that has been included in approximately 70,000 Tesla autos and is being used by Google in 24 Lexus SUVs and 34 other vehicles.

What happened in Florida? An 18-wheeler made a left turn in front of a 2015 Tesla Model S with one occupant. The Tesla was in autopilot and failed to apply the brakes. According to a statement Tesla issued, the car’s autopilot and the driver both failed to discern the white tractor-trailer against a bright sky, so the brakes were not applied.

Tesla has autopilot disabled by default in its vehicles and drivers are cautioned that the novice technology is still in a testing phase. Other than this accident and one where details have not been stated in Pennsylvania, the results for Tesla and other companies have been positive. (Google’s self-driving cars, as of June, had driven 1.7 million miles in autonomous mode.

Legalities, Liability and Insurance

Six states – California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota and Tennessee – as well as Washington, D.C. allow the use of autonomous vehicles. A total of 16 states by the end of last year had some sort of legislation in place governing their use.

The number of crashes is sure to be reduced with the new technology, but the insurance aspects are unclear. It will take some time, and accumulation of data, for insurers to be able to figure how much the self-pilot or automatic features reduce the frequency and cost of accidents. One thing is clear – accidents can and will still happen.

Accordingly, drivers need to be able to assume control of the car in an emergency or override the technology – just like people do driving in cruise control. The question is how much responsibility and attention should be required of drivers? In self-driving cars, are the “drivers” responsible for keeping their eyes on the road and feet near the pedals at all times? That would go against the image of being self-driving. Conversely, autopilot is comparable to cruise control and assumes the same responsibility on the “drivers” part.

Furthermore, there is the question of liability and whether it rests with the car manufacturer, driver or ??? Polls show that 50 percent of adults believe that a driverless vehicle’s manufacturer should bear responsibility in an accident, which could preclude companies from wanting to make the cars. Only one-fourth of those surveyed indicated that they would pay more for a driverless car to cover the carmaker’s accident liability. Additionally, a RAND Corporation study, “Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers,” said the manufacturer liability is likely to increase, while personal liability for drivers is likely to decrease because of the crash avoidance technology and ability to prevent issues with impaired driving.

The new Tesla cars, including the one in the crash, are the most advanced rolling computers disguised as cars on the road today. However, the accident with the Tesla and truck highlights the various issues that need to be resolved before self-driving cars become commonplace, including insurance and liability issues.

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

Insurance Information Institute: Self-Driving Cars and Insurance
Wall Street Journal: Roads That Work for Self-Driving Cars
PC World: Don’t Judge Self-Driving Tech Based on One Fatal Crash
PBS Newshour: Deadly Tesla crash exposes confusion over automated driving

Photo courtesy jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson) via Wikimedia Commons– Creative Commons license

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