May 20, 2024

A few minutes to 2PM on a sunny day in July 2020, Florida resident and owner of a Tesla Model S, Ms. Tracy Forth, was hit in the rear by a blue Acura on Interstate 275 near Tampa. According to statistics, rear-end accidents are some of the most common in America, and occur thousands of times daily.

Under normal circumstances, the driver in the rear is responsible for damages resulting from a rear-end accident. But, there are some exceptions, like when the leading driver slams on the brakes suddenly and stops for no apparent reason. 

The Driver’s Account

“Tesla has one of the most advanced driver assist features that can move the car from point A to B with minimal human intervention. While a relatively safe feature, it is prone to error, which has sometimes resulted in tragedy,” says car accident lawyer Roger K. Gelb of Gelb & Gelb, P.C.  

According to Forth’s initial statement, her car’s autopilot feature decided to apply brakes for no reason resulting in the accident. Going by Ms. Forth’s account, Tesla would have been liable for the accident. But, her account was not all there was to prove the case. Tesla provided data gathered by the vehicle, which helped prove that the other driver was responsible for the accident, not Forth’s vehicle. 

Teslas and other vehicles with advanced driver assist features are equipped with cameras and sensors that record a continuous stream of data from the vehicles, which helps in improving the vehicle’s driver assist features through Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). Besides helping develop more advanced autonomous driving technology, the data also becomes critical in determining how an accident occurred.

What the Data Showed

Data gathered by Ms. Forth’s vehicle showed that her vehicle was on autopilot and doing 77mph 10 seconds before the crash. Ms. Forth then prompted the vehicle to switch lanes. As the vehicle was shifting lanes, it interpreted a truck parked on the side of the road as an obstruction and thus decelerated rapidly, causing the other driver to bump into it. 

This evidence proves that Ms. Forth and the vehicle software weren’t responsible for the accident, but the other driver was. According to Forth’s lawyer, the other driver attempted to overtake at an unsafe speed.

According to road safety experts, access to this data could revolutionize accident investigations for the police, insurance companies, and businesses. According to Professor Matthew Wansley of the Cardozo School of Law, New York, all automakers should be required to gather this type of data and share it with relevant parties in the event of a crash. In his recently published academic paper, Wansley argues that such a move can help the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) improve safety on the roads in a big way.

It Is Achievable With Goodwill

The NHTSA has access to a small fraction of the data as it investigates crashes that occur while the autonomous feature is activated. The most significant roadblock to gaining insight from data gathered by automakers is the reluctance of vehicle manufacturers to share it due to intellectual property and privacy concerns.  

It is unclear who between the car manufacturers or the consumer owns the copyright to the data gathered by the vehicle cameras. So, even when the automaker may want to share the data, consumer privacy concerns would be an issue. According to experts with goodwill and change in legislation, it is possible to make this data openly available to help make the roads safer.