Tesla Motors acknowledged in a press release last week the first known fatal crash involving a vehicle operating in semi-autonomous mode. The report comes at a pivotal time for the automotive industry, with states beginning to take an interest in regulating the operation and deployment of autonomous vehicles, and with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) slated to release new federal guidelines on the subject later this month.

The fatal accident occurred on May 7, 2016, near Williston, Florida. According to the automaker’s press release, the driver of the 2015 Model S was traveling down a divided highway with Autopilot (the vehicle’s semi-autonomous feature) enabled. A tractor-trailer pulled out in front of the Model S and, according to Tesla, “[n]either Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.” The Model S collided with the side of the tractor-trailer.

Tesla reported the incident to NHTSA in May, and on June 28, NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations (ODI) opened a preliminary evaluation. According to ODI, the accident “calls for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash.”

Following the initial reports of the accident, speculation has arisen that the vehicle’s operator was possibly distracted and watching a movie at the time of the accident. There has also been speculation that the sensors used on the Model S have a “blind spot” that limits the Autopilot system’s ability to detect some objects at the height of the tractor-trailer. For its part, Tesla emphasized in its press release that its Autopilot system is disabled by default on its vehicles and requires the driver to keep his or her hands on the wheel while in operation. The incident serves as a reminder that while seemingly just on the horizon, autonomous vehicle development remains a work very much in progress. Even the most advanced systems currently available to the general public still require human supervision and intervention.

It also serves as a reminder that the industry will face significant public relations challenges during the transition to widespread use of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicle features. Tesla has said that this fatality was the first known death in 130 million miles of Autopilot use, compared to a death every 94 million miles among all vehicles in the United States, and every 60 million miles worldwide. And there is widespread agreement that effective autonomous technology will vastly improve the safety of riding in a motor vehicle. Nonetheless, problems with new technology—such as this crash and last year’s high-profile story about the “remote hijacking” of a Jeep—will continue to receive outsized attention.

With NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind’s acknowledgment last month that states likely will be free to regulate autonomous vehicles as they deem necessary, incidents like these may exacerbate the developing problem of an inconsistent nationwide patchwork of laws and regulations governing new vehicle technologies. Automakers seeking to roll out new autonomous technologies are likely to face an increasingly complex regulatory landscape as the transition to autonomous vehicles begins to take shape.

Ballard Spahr’s Product Liability and Mass Tort Group has substantial experience representing automotive companies in a wide range of litigation and counseling matters, including class actions and regulatory compliance. For more information, please contact Neal Walters at 856.761.3438 or waltersn@ballardspahr.com, or Casey G. Watkins at 856.761.3455 or watkinsc@ballardspahr.com.

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