On Thursday, Jan. 19, U.S. auto safety regulators announced that they found no defects evidence in a Tesla Model S car involved in a deadly accident while being on Autopilot mode.
Tesla Autopilot's Safety
As automakers race to automate more driving tasks, the case of the autonomous Tesla car accident has been closely watched. The car makers are trying to advance the self-driving technology and implement it on vehicle models available on the auto market without exposing themselves to increased liability risks.
According to Reuters, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk praised the decision announced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The auto safety regulator agency put the responsibility for the accident on the driver and did not order a recall on Tesla cars equipped with the Autopilot system.
Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, explained that automakers have to explain the limits of the semi-autonomous driving systems and drivers have a duty to maintain control of a vehicle. Legal experts said that, in cases where driver assistance systems fail to prevent a crash, the agency's decision does not mean automakers would escape liability claims. According to product liability lawyer Jason Stephens, in case that it is found that drivers are being confused by a self-driving system, then that can be considered a safety-related defect in and of itself.
By being involved in its first fatality, the Tesla vehicle operating in Autopilot mode raised questions about the safety of semi-autonomous systems that can perform driving tasks with little or no human intervention but are not able to completely replace human drivers.
The NHTSA found instead data that supports Tesla CEO's assertions that the company's Autopilot system is saving lives by preventing accidents.
After one component of the Autopilot system called Autosteer became available, investigators found that Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent. The investigation analyzed Tesla Model S and Model X vehicles equipped with Autopilot.
Tesla's Autopilot Upgrade
In September, Tesla Motors unveiled several improvements to Autopilot, adding new limits on hands-off driving as well as other features likely to have prevented a fatality. However, the NHTSA said that its decision to close the investigation was not based on the Autopilot improvements announced by Tesla in September.
In October, Musk announced that all new Tesla models will come with an $8,000 package that will allow fully autonomous driving. According to Fortune, new Tesla Model X and Model S cars are equipped with Hardware 2, a more sophisticated suite of radar, cameras, sensors and software that will enable them to eventually drive without human intervention.
When they buy a new car, Tesla customers have now the options to order either "Full Self-Driving Capability" or "Enhanced Autopilot". Vehicles equipped with the full self-driving ability will have a supercomputer capable of processing data 40 times faster than previously, as well as radar, ultrasonic sensors and eight cameras instead of the standard four.
A Tesla vehicle should be able by the end of 2017 to self-drive in full autonomous mode from Los Angeles to New York, according to Musk. Other rival car makers have announced their plans to provide full autonomous driving capability by the year 2020.