One of the reasons this accident occurred was because the Tesla car’s self-driving systems relied entirely on cameras, not more advanced detection systems such as radar or laser-based guidance systems known as lidar. The result was that on an overcast day where the sky was predominantly white, the car’s camera systems failed to distinguish the difference between the white sky and the white truck that was changing lanes. Joshua’s car collided with the truck as a result of this technical problem.
What has now come to light after the investigation was concluded is that this may not have entirely been the fault of the car and its systems. Joshua Brown ignored what his car was trying to tell him.
Cautions & Warnings
Unlike normal cars, which don’t do much in the way of collecting data, self-driving cars have a built-in system that constantly collects and analyzes traffic information in order to make decisions about how to proceed. This traffic and driving data can act as clear, objective proof of the events that led up to an accident, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if, in the future, any accidents involving self-driving cars may rely on this traffic data as evidence in court.
In the case of the Joshua Brown, new information from the investigation into the accident has disclosed more of the conditions surrounding the accident. The information collected by the car’s system now reveals two important pieces of information. The first is that the car itself warned Brown seven times to take back manual control of the car. It’s now been revealed that the Tesla “autopilot” mode of the car is capable of judging when it feels its ability to drive to may be compromised and can alert the driver that it is better to take back traditional control of the car. The other important piece of information is that over the course of the 37 minutes during which the car issues its seven warnings, Brown only took control of the car for 25 seconds of that period.
The Legal Pivot
With this type of information being brought to light, it brings in some interesting new questions about the future of self-driving cars and how they will be dealt with in legal conflicts. It’s possible that there may have been grounds for a lawsuit based on a manufacturing defect if Joshua Brown had died as a result of trusting his life to the car’s driving systems, and the car itself failing to protect him without any warning.
However, with information that the car repeatedly warned him to take control, and his decision to ignore those warnings, this now becomes a case of driver negligence. The legal responsibility now changes from being the fault of the manufacturer, Tesla, and falls back on the shoulders of Joshua Brown, who had the choice to drive manually after being advised multiple times by his car to do so but refused to take that action.
When self-driving cars become more integrated into our everyday experience, this will create a lot of new situations. Right now, for example, it is 100% illegal for someone who has consumed too much alcohol to get be-hind the wheel of their own vehicle and attempt to drive back home. But if the car can drive itself, then it should, in theory, be acceptable for a car owner to return home in their own vehicle, provided they do not attempt to control that vehicle themselves. Should they attempt to take the wheel, that changes the dynamic of how the law views the situation, especially if their manual control should lead to an accident.
Self-driving cars are coming but the first major integration we are going to see of these vehicles will be on the trucks that haul freight throughout the country. In a few years, these autonomous vehicles may become a familiar sight on our roads. More interestingly, however, they may also become valuable sources of evidence for a car crash lawyer or insurance claims investigator.
Even if a vehicle itself isn’t directly involved in an accident, the data gathering systems of these vehicles make them invaluable “witnesses” to an incident. A self-driving vehicle that passes by an accident as it occurs—even in the opposing lane—may collect important data about speed, direction, impact and other factors that can all help to get to the truth of who is responsible in a car accident. And that can make resolving lawsuits for personal injury much easier.