First Self-Driving Car Fatality Warns Insurers, Regulators to Slow Down

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The signs on the road to driverless car safety regulation are flashing: “Slow Ahead.”

Tesla Motors Inc.’s first crash fatality has sent a sobering message to driverless car proponents that no form of transportation—even one with autopilot technology backed by human drivers—can be made 100 percent safe under any and all circumstances.

But even if the cars will never be entirely risk-free, regulators and insurers could still try to mandate just how much safer they ought to be as they craft rules and policies governing their use.  At issue for insurers is whether to base premiums on driverless cars’ safety data or on more traditional factors, such as drivers’ ages and driving histories. State and federal regulators must consider how many more millions of miles of testing data to require before finalizing guidelines.

The death of Tesla enthusiast Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, whose Tesla Model S crashed into a tractor trailer in Florida while in autopilot mode in May, seems like it may slow an already challenging regulatory process.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has hesitated to put a date on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s issuance of guidelines for autonomous cars—which had been expected this summer—because of the high level of scrutiny they will undergo before being publicly released. Christopher Hart, chairman of the independent National Transportation Safety Board, warned during a June 30 National Press Club event that the regulation of driverless vehicles could be complicated.

“I think people are wildly underestimating the complexity of bringing automation into this system involving Joe Public,” Hart said. “It's going to be a huge shift for everybody.”

The race to develop autonomous vehicles has long been fueled by the promise of safer roads. Consider NHTSA’s report that a full 94 percent of fatal crashes in 2015 were caused by human error.

In April, Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed initial tests of the Model S’s autopilot feature, which allows a car to brake or parallel park automatically but still requires a driver, reduced the probability of an accident by 50 percent.

Initial figures after Brown’s fatal crash–a small sample, to be sure– show the Palo Alto-based electronic car maker’s technology has so far reduced fatalities by 29 percent when measured in terms of traffic fatalities per 100 million miles driven, according to calculations by Bloomberg BNA using data from federal and Tesla reports.