Joshua Brown became the first known fatality in a self-driving car when the Tesla Model S he was operating struck a semi tractor-trailer crossing U.S. Route 27 in Williston, Fla. on May 7. The Tesla was in autopilot mode at the time of the accident. Mr. Brown, a Canton, Ohio entrepreneur and former Navy SEAL, was an avid Tesla fan and had 45,000 miles on his car, according to the New York Times. Insurance defense lawyers who serve auto carriers on an auto liability panel will be watching this case closely.
Tesla notes in a news announcement, “This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the U.S., there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles.”
The autopilot software apparently did not recognize the bright white side of the tractor-trailer, positioned against a brightly lit sky, as an obstacle. Weather conditions reportedly were not a factor in the accident.
A post on Mid State Farmers Coop reports that Okemah Express, a trucking company with one truck and one driver, was involved in the crash. The company owner was driving the truck at the time of the crash. Okemah and its driver reportedly were cited for seven violations during four traffic stops over the past two years, and also cited for tire wear.
The family of Joshua Brown has not made any decision as to legal action, according to a legal representative quoted by Reuters.
It is not immediately clear which auto insurer provided coverage to Mr. Brown.
NHTSA Opens Tesla Investigation
Tesla quickly notified the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the accident. On June 28 the NHTSA opened an investigation (#PE16007) of the 25,000 Model S sedans that are equipped with the autopilot system. The NHTSA plans to examine the design and performance of any automated driving systems in use at the time of the crash.
The NHTSA granted a 5-star rating to the 2014 Tesla Model S 5 HB RWD, as reported on the website SaferCar.gov
Tesla Requires Driver Acknowledgement of Autopilot Risks
According to a June 30 Tesla news announcement,
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.
Social Media in Tesla Auto Liability
Ironically, Mr. Brown knew that his all-electric Tesla sedan did not recognize stopped vehicles, according to news reports. Joshua Brown’s YouTube channel was updated frequently and included multiple clips viewed by thousands of viewers.
Tesla was well aware of both Mr. Brown and his high visibility use of social media to share his experiences, as evidenced by an April 17 Twitter post sharing a video Mr. Brown posted on YouTube. In the video, the Tesla is swerving to avoid a truck collision. The original YouTube video has been watch by more than 3 million viewers as of this date.
Considerations for Auto Liability Panel Counsel Members
As driverless technology advances, insurance defense attorneys representing auto carriers will need to address a number of emerging issues:
- The role of autopilot software in injury and fatal crashes
- Driver acceptance of manufacturer’s liability disclaimer
- Driver failure to maintain line of sight control over vehicle operation
- Autopilot software that keeps a vehicle in motion after a crash (as may have been the case here)
- Liability of the auto manufacturer and/or software development company
- Insurance coverage and/or exclusion issues regarding autopilot vehicle operation
Insurance defense law firms and the auto insurers they represent will be watching this case very carefully for its precedent-setting value in regard to driverless technology.
Help with Legal Marketing for Insurance Defense Firms
If your insurance defense law firm is asking how you can get on more insurance panels, give us a call.
Legal Expert Connections, Inc. offers three key benefits to insurance defense law firms nationwide:
- We are the leading U.S. legal marketing agency specializing in the insurance defense market. We know the panel counsel process, and focus on helping you get new engagements.
- Save time and money. You get quality results without the need to invest in senior in-house marketing / business development staff with the associated overhead expense for office space, equipment, and benefits.
- Increase revenue with professional, on-going legal marketing campaigns. We do the research to identify insurance panel managers, so you can accelerate your business development process.