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Feds Close Tesla Autopilot Fatality Probe

Is NHTSA Getting Ready to Formally Investigate Tesla's Autopilot?

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has closed an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system in connection with the death of Joshua Brown, a former Navy SEAL who died when he was driving the vehicle in semi-autonomous mode. According to CNET.com, the federal regulatory agency, after a “lengthy investigation,” has determined that Tesla’s autonomous emergency braking system was not to blame in Brown’s death. NHTSA has also stated that it will not require Tesla to recall the Autopilot-equipped models. 

NHTSA Clears Autopilot in Deadly Crash

Tesla recently released an Autopilot system that is capable of disabling itself and pulling to the side of the road if the driver does not respond to repeated requests to take the wheel. Since Brown’s fatal accident, Tesla has reiterated that Autopilot is only a “driving aid” that is meant to help motorists relax a little. The automaker has said Autopilot is not a fully autonomous feature and that drivers should be prepared to take over at a moment’s notice.

Officials found that in Brown’s case, the system performed as designed. Brown had seven seconds to respond to the truck that was about to turn in front of him. The vehicle was traveling at 74 mph at the time. Officials determined that Brown had plenty of time to bring the vehicle to a stop. NHTSA also found that Tesla’s crash rate dropped significantly after Autopilot’s semi-autonomous steering system was enabled.

Concerns Still Remain Over Autopilot

Autopilot has its fan base, but it also has many safety advocates, including our auto product liability lawyers, concerned about the potential overstatement of its abilities. When you put phrases out like “self-driving” car, it gives consumers the wrong understanding of what that car is capable of doing. We never heard Tesla say before Brown’s crash that Autopilot had its limitations, that drivers should be vigilant or have their hands on the wheel, even on Autopilot mode.

As Consumer Reports stated in an editorial soon after Brown’s crash, Tesla should at the minimum change Autopilot’s name because it gives consumers the wrong impression that they are buying an autonomous vehicle, when clearly, it is not. For drivers who are contemplating buying one of these vehicles, Brown’s death is a warning. There are a lot of new technologies out there, some that are still being tested.

Driverless cars may be the way of the future, but based on the number of incidents that are being reported, they don’t seem ready to be the norm just yet. Automakers should use due diligence in testing these vehicles before they pass them on to consumers.


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