Tesla Wins First Trial Involving “Autopilot,” but More Serious Cases Loom

On April 21, Tesla was handed a victory in the first-ever trial involving Autopilot. The case provides an early glimpse into how efforts to hold Tesla liable for Autopilot crashes might fare with juries, and the press has called the trial a “bellwether” for others that are currently pending. Nevertheless, a close look at the facts indicates that plaintiffs might have more success in the future.

The plaintiff, Justine Hsu, was driving her Tesla in stop and go traffic on a surface street with a concrete median in Arcadia, California. She activated Autopilot, a suite of features that includes “traffic aware cruise control,” a system that automatically adjusts speed based on traffic conditions and that is, according to her complaint, popular among Tesla owners in heavy traffic. The car was driving about 20-30 miles per hour when it suddenly swerved off the road and into the median. At this point the car’s airbag deployed, shattering Hsu’s jaw and knocking out several of her teeth. (The airbag manufacturer was also a defendant in the case, and was also found not liable by the jury).

In a few ways, Hsu’s case represents a classic fact pattern involving Autopilot. On one hand, the system clearly did not function as it was designed to do. Autonomous vehicles should not suddenly swerve off the road, and yet in several cases Autopilot has done just that. One such case was the crash that killed Walter Huang, who was using Autopilot on his commute to work when his car veered off the highway and into a concrete barrier at more than 70 miles per hour. On a basic level, Hsu’s case was an effort to hold Tesla liable for this malfunction, and also for the misleading way Autopilot is marketed.

On the other hand, Hsu was using Autopilot in a setting where it was not supposed to be used.

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A Glimpse into Tesla’s New “Full Self Driving” Technology

Aerial photo of Tesla car in Full Self Driving mode making a left turnThis week the New York Times published a fascinating look at the latest iteration of Tesla’s automated driving technology, which the company calls “Full Self Driving.” Reporters and videographers spent a day riding with Tesla owner Chuck Cook, an airline pilot who lives in Jacksonville, Florida and has been granted early access to the new technology as a beta tester. What they found was, to my eye anyway, disturbing.

Mr. Cook’s Tesla navigated a broad range of city streets, selecting a route to a destination, recognizing and reacting to other cars, seeing and understanding traffic lights, and even making unprotected left-hand turns—a routine situation that autonomous vehicles struggle to handle. But the car also behaved erratically at times, requiring Mr. Cook to take over and correct its course. In one instance it veered off the street and into a motel parking lot, almost hitting a parked car. In another, it tried to make a left turn onto a quiet street but then, fooled by shade and branches from an overhanging tree, aborted the turn and ended up heading into oncoming traffic on a divided street. These incidents occurred in a single day of testing.

It is worth considering the experience of the Times reporters in the broader context of autonomous vehicle development, something the article largely fails to do.

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As Our Climate Changes, What Can Be Done about Flood Risk?

Flooding is the most common and most costly natural disaster in the United States, and the toll it takes is only expected to grow over the coming years. Rising sea levels, more powerful hurricanes, and more intense rainfall—all worsening thanks to climate change—will displace people from their homes and put increasing strain on the systems we use to address these A flooded streetrisks. One of the most important such systems is the National Flood Insurance Program (“NFIP”), which has been in debt to the U.S. Treasury since 2005 and is perpetually derided as “broken.” It seems obvious that a big part of the solution to the problems ailing the NFIP (and to our problem of flood risk more generally) is to move people away from flood-prone areas, and yet the policy reforms intended to address these issues have prove extremely difficult for Congress to enact. In a new paper recently published in the Colorado Law Review, I offer some theories as to why.

A key obstacle to seemingly enlightened policy reform, I argue, is our country’s deep-seated hostility to paternalistic interventions. Drawing on the philosophical literature on paternalism, I note the key features that make such laws objectionable to many people: they seek to override individuals’ judgments about what is best for them. Even when such decisions appear to be flawed (like the choice to live in a flood-prone area, for example), they often depend on value judgments, and it is therefore hard to say that a different choice would be objectively rational. It is impossible, for instance, to weigh the emotional value of a home or neighborhood against the expected future costs of flooding in a way that produces an objectively optimal course of action, in the same way there is no objectively correct way to eat, given the emotional and cultural significance of food.

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