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Anyone who has been following the evolution of cars with semi-autonomous features likely took interest in the recent news that a fatal Tesla car accident occurred while the vehicle was in autopilot mode. As with Google cars before it, the Tesla case seemed to point toward reasonable doubt about the safety of cars with autonomous technology. Let’s take a closer look at the case and consider the implications it might have in the future for the auto industry and self-driving cars in general.

What We Know

The May 7 accident in Williston, Fla., occurred when the Tesla Model S, operating on Autopilot driving assist mode, collided with a semi-truck. The top of the vehicle was sheared off, killing the driver, Joshua Brown. It was recently revealed that the electric car was speeding at 74 miles per hour in a 65 mph zone. Although the accident was the first case of a driver being killed while driving on Autopilot, criticism of the technology has been very intense in the aftermath.

How it Happened

Preliminary studies of the incident show that neither the car’s autonomous system nor the driver applied the brakes before the accident. The car drove underneath the semi-truck’s trailer, out the other side, hit a utility pole, and traveled an additional 50 feet. The initial investigation did not specify a cause of the accident, and it could take up to a year for the final report to be released. It is unclear why the Tesla’s brakes were not used as the semi-truck driver drove in front of Brown.

Future Impact

As a result of the fatality, the scrutiny of semi-autonomous features on vehicles has increased exponentially. Tesla CEO Elon Musk continues to insist the technology is safe and has said he will not disable it on the 70,000 equipped cars on the road. There seems to be general concern that owners are not correctly using Autopilot, which requires drivers to be engaged with the system at all times.

In fact, Autopilot is not meant to drive the car by itself. It involves an emergency braking system, a steering system usually used in slow traffic, lane-keeping technology, and adaptive cruise control. The question has arisen about the safety of vehicles that require a driver to immediately take control of the car if an emergency suddenly occurs.

The current technology in vehicles is more intended to help them avoid common accidents, not to provide completely autonomous driving. Consumers may not fully appreciate this intention yet, however, and put themselves at risk if they don’t use the features properly.

Every accident that happens increases the skepticism surrounding the safety of vehicles with semi-automated features and, ultimately, “driverless” cars. Time will tell if consumers grow to trust the technology or accidents continue to occur.

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