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February 08, 2022

Tesla’s Autopilot Feature: Is it a Liability?

Tesla Ownership in Westchester County

The Tesla brand is well known for its autopilot feature allowing a vehicle to perform certain tasks on its own.  In the Hudson Valley, there are more Tesla owners per capita than in any other part of New York State, with Westchester County leading the pack!

What exactly is “autopilot?” The term autopilot has been used for many years in the aircraft industry.  This feature allows a plane to fly itself taking some of the cognitive burden off of the pilot.  Offered in cars, it can be a basic driver assistance feature, such as cruise control, or one that enables the vehicle to park itself.

This should not be confused with self-driving.  Autopilot still requires that the driver remain attentive and able to intervene at any time.

How Safe is the Autopilot Feature?

With an increase in accidents being reported involving the autopilot system, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating the autopilot’s limitations, driver error, and safety problems.

Unfortunately, a recent study performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded that the more time a driver spends behind the wheel of a car using autopilot, the more comfortable and less attentive he or she becomes.

The study showed: “Drivers were more than twice as likely to show signs of disengagement after a month of using Pilot Assist compared with the beginning of the study.  Compared with driving manually, they were more than 12 times as likely to take both hands off the wheel after they’d gotten used to how it worked.”

Earlier this year, a Tesla driver using autopilot was the first person to be charged with two felony counts of vehicle manslaughter in a fatal accident.  The car he was driving sped through a red light, slamming into a vehicle with three passengers, killing two. The NHTSA investigation confirmed that autopilot was active at the time of the crash.

The use of autopilot and being involved in an accident has legal nuances separate and apart from other vehicle accidents.  Did the software technology fail?  Was the driver at fault?  Was there an automaker or parts manufacturer issue? Was there an installation problem? An update requirement?

Although these autopilot features are there to enhance the driving experience, improve on driver’s weaknesses, and increase traffic safety, if an accident occurs, determining who was at fault can be very complicated.

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