Fatal Crash Raises Questions About Automated Vehicles

August 01, 2016| By Mathias Schubert | Auto/Motor | English | Deutsch

Region: North America

Recent news of the first fatal accident involving a car in automated driving mode was followed by numerous articles, blogs and discussions on forums online. Most of them focused on the viability of automated driving functionality, bringing about a worthwhile debate about the technology, its most appropriate next development stages along the various levels of automation1 and, notably, the interaction between (human) driver and machine. However, few observers have emphasized that this fatality involving a Tesla vehicle, while tragic, and despite its unusual circumstances, was the result of an “ordinary” accident.

On May 7, 2016 Joshua D. Brown, of Canton, Ohio, was travelling in his Tesla Model S near Williston, Florida. The vehicle’s “autopilot” function was activated as it cruised along a divided highway with a grass median strip when an oncoming tractor-trailer made a left turn at an intersection without traffic lights. Neither the autopilot function nor the driver appeared to notice the white side of the tractor-trailer against the bright sky, so the car didn’t brake and crashed into the trailer in its path. The high ground clearance of the trailer and its positioning across the road caused the Model S to pass beneath it, resulting in its windshield and roof being ripped off.

While the authorities are still investigating the various aspects of the accident, an obvious question is whether the truck driver was fully or partly responsible for the accident. According to official reports, he made a left turn to cross two highway lanes which weren’t clear of oncoming traffic; the authorities could find that the Model S (driver or autopilot) was not the cause of the crash. Another question is whether the Tesla driver or autopilot could have avoided the crash or at least have significantly reduced its effects if either one had “seen” the tractor-trailer and applied the brakes.

If the truck driver is found at fault, the likely result is that Brown’s estate can recover from the truck driver’s insurance company. Contributory negligence (referred to as “comparative negligence” under Florida law) may also affect the outcome. Any recovery could be reduced under the comparative negligence rules applied in Florida if the Tesla driver is found partly at fault. Any evidence that the Tesla driver was engaged in distracting activities at the time of the crash would come into play.

But that is probably not the end of the liability story. Brown’s estate could consider filing a claim against Tesla Motors in the event of loss in excess of the insurance recovery. The truck driver’s auto insurer could also file a claim against Tesla in an attempt to recover compensation paid to Brown’s estate. Such claims would be based on product liability. The claimant could allege that the autopilot functionality was defective, by lacking the ability to deal with this situation or as a result of Tesla’s failure to properly instruct drivers of this type of “blind spot” or the system’s limitations in general.

The autopilot function enables the Model S to automatically travel within a lane, change lanes, accelerate or slow down, depending on the speed selected by the driver and the overall traffic situation. It also features Automatic Emergency Braking. An excerpt from Tesla’s press release, entitled A Tragic Loss, of June 30 sheds light on the nature of the autopilot function (emphasis added):

It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times," and that "you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver's hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.2


While some observers have argued about the wisdom of using the label “autopilot” for a vehicle’s “assist feature”, it seems from the press release that Tesla’s autopilot functionality is at Level 2 (partial automation, requiring the driver to “monitor the dynamic driving task and the driving environment at all times”). However, some drivers have been using the Model S as if it were Level 3 or higher. A number of them have posted videos online that show more or less problematic or even grossly inappropriate behavior. Tesla has vehemently criticized such behavior and threatened to cut the drivers off from future upgrades.

In Brown’s fatal accident, questions abound. Was the autopilot function defective because it failed to recognize the tractor-trailer? Is it reasonable to expect such a system to cope with adverse light conditions? If it is found defective, how will any negligence of the driver impact the ultimate award?

The fact that the airbags did not deploy during the crash could point to another potential defect. It is possible that the nature of the accident affected the airbag system components, but this is still an unknown. These are all questions that a jury may one day answer.

Road traffic accidents and claims between drivers are an everyday part of the insurance business. Questions of tort liability law, including contributory / comparative negligence, arise in almost all such scenarios. More answers will emerge here after investigations are complete and laws are applied. What remains to be seen is if and how the introduction of automated technology into the vehicle mix will affect what is otherwise an everyday motor claim. Whether you insure the driver of an automated vehicle or a traditional vehicle, or the manufacturer of a vehicle or embedded technology, the answers are important.


  1. International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers (2014). Automated Driving: Definition for Levels of Automation [Presentation]. Retrieved from


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