According to Wikipedia, an autopilot is a system used to control the path of an aircraft, car, marine craft, or spacecraft without requiring constant manual control by a human operator.
Tesla has chosen that unfortunate name for its vehicle guidance system. While automated capabilities are intended to assist drivers, a system named Autopilot can mislead consumers into believing the cars are capable of much more than they really are.
It really doesn’t matter what disclaimers the manufacturer makes because, in a significant accident case involving fatalities, a jury will be led to find that the manufacturer has a piece of the liability.
The L.A. Times just reported that prosecutors in Los Angeles County filed two counts of vehicular manslaughter against the driver of a Tesla who ran a red light and was involved in a collision that killed two people, in which Autopilot was apparently a factor. Experts believe it is the first felony prosecution in the United States of a driver accused of causing a fatality while using a partially automated driver-assist system.
“It’s a wake-up call for drivers,” said Alain Kornhauser, director of the self-driving car program at Princeton University. “It certainly makes us, all of a sudden, not become so complacent in the use of these things that we forget about the fact that we’re the ones that are responsible — not only for our own safety but for the safety of others.”
As noted in the L.A. Times article, “yet even as fully autonomous cars are being tested on public roads, automakers, technology companies, organizations that set engineering standards, regulators, and legislators have failed to make clear to the public — and in some cases one another — what the technical differences are, or who is subject to legal liability when people are injured or killed.”
A driver who is lulled into such a false sense of confidence in an automated driving system that he lies down in the backseat to rest while the car is moving under automatic control, clearly demonstrates the public confusion about the capabilities of such vehicles.
It can be argued that a motor vehicle guidance system that allows steering and acceleration to occur automatically and without driver intervention to be inherently dangerous. And in a case where the vehicle is uninsured or underinsured, a smart plaintiff’s attorney will find a way to stick it to the manufacturer. It is a brave new world for sure.