Federal regulators gave Tesla some good news this week when they cleared the automaker’s “Autopilot” system of responsibility for a fatal crash in 2016. Instead, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found the driver of a Tesla car that collided with a truck (the article says the car “drove itself into” the truck) ignored warnings by Tesla to keep control of the car at all times. This is certainly a victory for autonomous driving systems — the opposite finding would have been a major setback for Tesla — but not the end of the war.
Like seat belts, autonomous driving vehicles will reduce accidents and fatalities, not eliminate them. And Americans are litigious. Apple is being sued for not doing enough to prevent texting while driving, even though texting while driving is explicitly against the law. Companies with deep pockets, like Tesla, Apple, and Google, will continue to attract litigators, and insurers who provide product liability coverages to autonomous auto industry should not start cutting prices. However, auto insurers should anticipate reduced frequency and severity of accidents as safety features continue to be improved.
All of that being said, this week’s ruling is an indication that our society accepts this research and technology direction. Autonomous cars offer significant benefits to portions of our society that have disabilities and to the elderly who can become riskier drivers, not to mention the potential large-scale benefits of improving traffic flow and reducing air pollution. Lastly, with this decision as precedent, the profit potential for the winners in this space will continue to drive research and innovation.