#194, Lawyer, engineering expert questions Tesla’s AutoPilot

James Raia

A driverless Tesla crash left two dead in Texas.

Tesla isn’t new to controversy and nor is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and both are back in the news.

The NHTSA, previously critical of the electric vehicle manufacturer, recently said its conducting a preliminary evaluation into the carmaker’s self-titled “Autopilot” systems after 11 crashes in nine states.

NHTSA question Tesla after 11 emgergency accidents.
NHTSA has questioned Tesla after 11 of its cars were involved in 11 accidents with emergency vehicles.

The concern, the agency reported, is how the driver assistance technology works to “monitor, assist, and enforce the driver’s engagement with driving while Autopilot is in use.”

Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor in the School of Law and the School of Engineering at the University of South Carolina, discusses the Tesla situation on this episode of The Weekly Driver Podcast.

Tesla questioned again by NHTSA

Podcast co-hosts Bruce Aldrich and James Raia talk with Smith about a full range of emerging transport technologies.

“I will refer to automation technologies generally,” Smith explains during the opening of the podcast. “But I think we will be specifically talking about driver assistance technologies of which Tesla has questionably named AutoPilot and the future of automated driving technologies, that is those that could truly deserve the name self-driving.”

Smith is also an affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and co-director of the University of Michigan Project on Law and Mobility.

He previously led the Emerging Technology Law Committee of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies and served on the US Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation.

A graduate of New York University School of Law, Smith also has a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin. He advises cities, states, countries, and the United Nations on emerging transport technologies.

“In a lot of ways, the stats are old news, the roughly dozen crashes involving Tesla vehicles and Emergency Responding vehicles have been widely reported and discussed,” says Smith. “What’s news is the NHTSA’s formal inquiry into them which to could potentially lead to a finding of defect or an effort to get some sort of recall.

“In that way, it’s not terribly big news. It’s one piece t it’s a piece of a much larger set of questions about Tesla, its technologies and really its marketing. That’s a much more important story.”

Bruce and I further discuss with Smith the quickly changing auto technology in several areas.

“Drivers in all kinds of vehicles, unfortunately, do collide with emergency vehicles,” he says. “Emergency vehicles tend to be in dangerous places. That is a problem. Driver distraction is a problem. Tesla’s driver assistance technologies may have very serious problems in their design and their interactions with the drivers and in the marketing and all of that is worth examining and it’s important in a broader context.”

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Article Last Updated: August 23, 2021.

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