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Legal aspects of cars on autopilot after officials say driver was sleeping in Tesla

Posted at 6:25 PM, May 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-18 23:27:24-04

KENOSHA — Kenosha County Sheriff's Office deputies pulled over a man for allegedly sleeping while he was behind the wheel. The Illinois man was driving a Tesla which has an “autopilot” feature that can make the car almost fully self-driving. He was cited for not paying attention while driving. This is the latest in a string of incidents involving autonomous cars across the country.

Last month in Texas, a Tesla crashed into a tree killing two people in the vehicle. Police found there was no one in the driver's seat of the car. Over the weekend, a Tesla on autopilot ran into a Washington State patrol deputy.

There are more than 1,400 cars are on the road right now that are self-driving and being tested by 80 companies, according to TechCrunch.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says the autonomous cars of that level can "control steering, braking and accelerating simultaneously under some circumstances."

But that the human driver "must continue to pay full attention at all times and perform the rest of the driving task."

tesla
The Tesla car

"If you look strictly at interpreting the rules of the road, there has to be a driver in the car, and so the question you're raising is if somebody is in the driver's seat,” said Milwaukee attorney Arthur Harrington.

Harrington sits on the Wisconsin Automated Connected Electric Shared Mobility board, which looks at laws for autonomous vehicles. Harrington says had there been a crash while someone was using an autonomous feature, they can be held liable, even if the machine made the mistake.

“What the person's lawyer is going to argue - who's on the other side if they're injured, if they crashed into another vehicle - they're going to talk about whether that person is negligent,” said Harrington. “You're responsible to do what a reasonable person would do.”

Along with Tesla, in just this last year, U.S. News and World Report says seven other vehicles have come out that have a similar level of automation:

  • 2020 Tesla Model S
  • 2020 Cadillac CT6
  • 2020 Nissan Rogue
  • 2020 BMW X7
  • 2020 Infiniti QX50
  • 2020 Volvo XC60
  • 2020 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
  • 2021 Toyota RAV4

With the growing demand for these cars comes an increase in crashes. But according to the NHTSA, 93 percent of all crashes are caused by human error, something autonomous vehicles aim to avoid if operated properly.

“I don't want to lose track of the fact that these features are designed to reduce human error, that leads to accidents. So these are all sort of outlier examples that we're all focusing on,” said Harrington.

TMJ4 News did reach out to Tesla for a comment, but we did not hear back. On their website, they say the autopilot features "require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous."

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