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One of the biggest safety issues when it comes to the roadways these days is distracted driving that poses serious risk for crashes, injuries, and deaths. Fully and partially autonomous vehicles are supposed to help curb that risk, but how well do they really work?

Autopilot systems are coming under scrutiny, especially since a Tesla Model 3 crashed into a semi-truck in Florida in March 2019. AP reports that almost a year later the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its report and blame is partially being laid at the feet of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and maybe rightfully so. Electronic driver-assist technology in vehicles is intended to stop distracted driving, but may actually encourage it.

Safety concerns and risks of using autopilot systems

The ultimate point of these autopilot systems is to take more risk out of distracted driving, thereby making the roads safer, but when they lack proper controls to prevent misuse, they have the opposite effect. In the case of the Tesla Model 3 crash, the cause of the accident was cited as allowing the driver to avoid paying attention. It was presumed that engaging the autopilot system would render it unnecessary. In addition, Tesla’s system design permitted the autopilot to be activated in areas where it wasn’t designed to be used.

Risks of these systems include:

  • Drivers removing their hands from the steering wheel
  • Drivers becoming disengaged and failing to react to their surroundings
  • Vehicle systems failing to properly engage in all driving scenarios

The failures of these automated driving features are more consistent with the vehicle manufacturer’s shortcoming in setting system limits rather than being a defective vehicle.

When using an autopilot system proves to be deadly

The accident the AP report discusses happened on a Delray Beach, Florida highway when the driver and the autopilot system both failed to apply brakes when a tractor trailer cut in front of the Tesla causing the fatal crash. It was the third such crash Delray Beach has seen involving Tesla’s cars and their drivers falsely relying on their autopilot systems.

That crash occurred because the Tesla model involved was not capable of detecting cross traffic, so it failed to recognize the eighteen-wheeler cutting in front of it so closely. Tesla has allowed drivers of its vehicles to engage their electronic driver-assist system when the likelihood is high that they may face the very traffic situations that have led to multiple deaths. Tesla has admitted that their vehicles don’t have the capability of reacting to crossing traffic or preventing high speed crashes.

Are government agencies doing enough to protect the safety of unsuspecting drivers?

The NTSB took aim at the NHTSA with respect to the problem with Tesla’s vehicles due to the number of crashes occurring. The NHTSA “failed to make sure automakers put safeguards in place to limit use of electronic driving systems to areas where they are designed to work.”

The NHTSA doesn’t appear to be doing anything to force Tesla to make their autopilot systems compliant with NTSB safety recommendations despite data collected from multiple crashes signaling the need.

Tesla’s system is designed to only be used on limited access highways where there isn’t a risk of cross traffic. Unfortunately, when you give drivers unfettered access to a tool they’re going to use it whenever they believe it to be needed. It’s the auto maker’s job to figure out how to restrict the technology so that it only becomes active under the circumstances for which it can handle. The safety of everyone on the road depends on it.

As technological advances are integrated into our vehicles, it stands to reason that they’re going to be used to their fullest capacity. After all, why else would you buy a higher priced vehicle marketed as having intuitive capability? The Phoenix vehicle accident attorneys at Plattner Verderame P.C., understand that driver responsibility doesn’t end with new vehicle safety features. If you or a family member are injured or killed by a distracted driver, our experienced personal injury attorneys will pursue justice for you by holding the manufacturer and at-fault driver responsible. To schedule your free case evaluation in our Phoenix office, we welcome you to call us at 602-783-8793, or reach out to us through our contact page.