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By Jim Adler July 5, 2016

If you heard about a man killed in a driverless car, you might be wondering if driverless cars are safe. The answer is maybe.

The crash happened on May 7, 2016, in Williston, FL. Joshua D. Brown, 40, of Canton, OH, was killed when his Tesla S’s Autopilot system did not recognize the white side of an 18-wheeler truck against a bright sky and did not brake when the big rig turned left in front of his oncoming vehicle at an intersection.

The problem of the Tesla S Autopilot not recognizing the big rig was compounded by the space between the bottom of the tractor trailer and the ground. The Tesla S went under the 18-wheeler, with its windshield and passenger compartment colliding with its underside, killing Brown.

Tesla vehicles also come equipped with auto-braking systems. But they, too, aren’t foolproof, and they did not activate in the Florida crash.

First Autopilot Death

Tesla claims that this was the first known traffic death in more than 130 million miles of travel by vehicles using its Autopilot system. It states that “when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety.”

Safety experts also claim that self-driving cars could enhance safety and lower the 1.25 million deaths annually in motor vehicles worldwide.

Tesla has much invested in such autonomous driving systems, which it began applying it to its vehicles in October of 2015.

But given the chance of crashes, are driverless cars worth the risk?

Autopilot System Pros, Cons

In assessing Autopilot systems’ pros and cons, automakers have admitted they won’t entirely eliminate crashes but argue that they can help avoid far more crashes than they cause.

An estimated 94 percent of America’s 35,000 yearly traffic deaths are due to human errors, most of which could be eliminated by effective Autopilot cars. But as automakers point out, drivers of such cars still should be alert to apply brakes or steer a vehicle themselves if the situation demands.

That might have helped avoid the fatal Tesla crash in Florida. The car’s Autopilot allowed the driver to take his hands off the wheel and his feet off the pedals, but the driver could have reclaimed control of either. However, it’s believed Brown was watching a Harry Potter movie on a portable DVD player at the time of the fatal Florida crash.

Indeed, there’s no guarantee that drivers will be alert at all times to seize control if needed, and nothing in Tesla’s Autopilot system compels drivers to keep an eye on traffic.

Imperfections in Autopilot systems have led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate the Florida crash. It’s expected to provide a list of recommended driverless car policies for states this summer — but those won’t be binding.

States Regulate Driverless Cars

In other words, legalizing driverless cars is up to the states. At this time such vehicles have regulations in just eight states and the District of Columbia. Those states regulating autonomous vehicles are California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee and Florida. (In Arizona, the rules are set via the governor’s executive order rather than by legislation.)

In some cases, driverless car laws only allow autonomous vehicles to be tested on public roads, and that’s only as long as a human driver is at the wheel.

In Texas, legislation known as TX SB 1167, which involved autonomous motor vehicles, failed in the legislature. But while no driverless car testing is allowed yet in Texas, no laws specifically prohibit such vehicles’ use outside of testing.

Meanwhile, more and more states are introducing autonomous vehicle legislation. Make no mistake: Driverless cars are coming. About 230,000 such vehicles are expected to have been sold by 2025, and almost 12 million by 2035.

Driverless Car Liability Laws

Also needed are driverless car liability laws, in the event that a driverless car is involved in a crash, where its Autopilot system may or may not have been a factor. Jim Adler & Associates has more information on existing product liability laws, the legal ramifications of autonomous vehicles and what new laws may be needed in an earlier driverless cars blog post.

Until such cars come, let’s all keep our eyes on the road. And let’s remind ourselves that no matter who — or what — is driving, constant vigilance may be all that stands between our loved ones’ safety and a frightening crash.

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