Tesla recently released an “autopilot” feature for its Model S cars that, according to Tesla, “allows the cars to steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control.” Given Tesla’s bold pronouncements about the capabilities of the autopilot feature, it is not surprising that many media outlets exaggerated the capability of this feature and pronounced that the era of self-driving cars was upon us. For example, the Washington Post featured an article on its website that was titled, “Tesla Cars Gain Self-Driving Sentience Overnight.” In the article, the writer asserted that Tesla had “brought a new breed of self-driving car to American roads.” But as one critic has noted, Tesla’s autopilot feature is not synonymous with autonomous driving. Nevertheless, some Tesla owners are acting like it is and have started engaging in dangerous behavior by taking their hands off the wheel to test out the autopilot mode. The dangerous and negligent actions of these Tesla drivers pose a risk to other drivers on the roadway. Recognizing that Tesla drivers are putting themselves and other drivers at danger, Tesla recently announced that it will put more limits on its autopilot feature in an effort to prevent dangerous driving behavior.
In the event of a serious collision resulting from a driver testing the limits of autopilot mode, Tesla may find itself facing a product liability lawsuit. For example, someone injured by a Tesla driving in autopilot mode could assert that Tesla is liable for defects in the manufacture or design of the vehicle. Or, an injured person could argue that Tesla is liable because it failed to provide adequate warnings and instructions to car owners on how to properly use the autopilot feature. Hopefully, nobody will be injured or killed as a result of autopilot mode failing to work properly, or by a Tesla driver failing to use it properly. But considering the ways that Tesla owners have used autopilot mode in the short time it has been available, it appears that Tesla may have actually brought a new breed of dangerous driving to American roads.