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October 19, 2015 – in Car Accidents, Personal Injury Law, Risk Reduction on the Road

Will self-driving cars like the Tesla Model S prevent accidents, or create more problems?

Companies like Tesla and Google are leading the way in developing autonomous driving capabilities in motor vehicles. Will it do more harm than good?

Last week, automaker Tesla released its self-driving capability dubbed Autopilot to current owners of its Model S vehicle. Tesla’s self-driving software allows the vehicle to autonomously steer within a lane, change lanes, parallel park, brake and avoid collisions from the front and side by turning.

Other car manufacturers such as Volvo, BMW, Toyota, GM, Chevy, Acura, Audi, Mazda and Subaru are also releasing semi-autonomous capabilities in their vehicles, such as automatic braking to avoid collisions, collision alert systems, and automatic parallel parking.

Google has also been developing a self-driving car for several years now. Their ambitious prototype, unlike others, does not rely on human involvement – it doesn’t even include a steering wheel!

Tesla’s self-driving vehicles seem to be garnering the most excitement and media attention at the moment. That is likely due to the fact that while Google’s self-driving car may be more ambitious, it’s hard to imagine it becoming legal anytime soon. Even Tesla’s less ambitious implementation has many regulatory hurdles to clear.

Autonomous driving or assisted driving?

The direction that Tesla and most major automobile manufacturers are taking seems to indicate that these new self-driving capabilities are less about “complete autonomous driving” and more about “intelligent driver assistance.” And that’s an important distinction. For instance, in order to change lanes automatically in the Model S, the driver must initiate the lane change by using the turn signal. And Tesla instructs drivers to always keep their hands on the wheel when the Autopilot software is active, which demonstrates their belief that driver engagement is still essential for safety.

A few days ago, a Model S owner posted a video on YouTube of his experience with Tesla’s newly released autonomous driving software. The video shows a near head-on collision. In the driver’s own words, “After several seconds of successful hands-free driving, I admit I started to ignore the warning to keep my hands on the wheel so that I could record the moment to share with friends. That’s when all hell broke loose.”

This video clearly shows the potential danger of some of these new autonomous driving capabilities. Features like accident avoidance and automatic braking have the potential to revolutionize highway safety by reducing accidents, but they are not an excuse for distracted driving, which is still a serious problem.

Ironically, these systems have been developed to increase safety on the roadway; they may have the opposite effect if they are inappropriately relied on.