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What happens when a self-driving car kills its driver?

In early May, in central Florida, a 40-year-old Navy veteran was killed while driving-or, more accurately, not-driving-his car. He was behind the wheel of a Tesla Model S electric sedan, a car which had been outfitted with the ability to drive itself. A tractor-trailer made a sudden turn in front of the Tesla; the Tesla failed to apply its brakes; its operator died in the ensuing crash.

According to The New York Times, this is the first known fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle. Yet as Tesla, Google, General Motors, and other firms continue to develop autonomously driving vehicles, it is safe to say it will not be the last.

This raises an interesting legal question. Namely, when an individual is injured or killed by a self-driving car, who should be held liable? As yet, it is unclear whether the "driver" or the car company itself should be considered the party at fault.

Who's to blame? (And how much should they pay?)

Tesla did not claim responsibility for the crash in Florida. Nor did it claim the driver was responsible. "Neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied," the company said in a prepared statement. (One report notes that the driver may not have noticed the tractor-trailer because he was watching "Harry Potter" at the time of the crash.)

At present, Tesla requires operators of its self-driving vehicles to acknowledge that its autopilot mode is strictly "an assist feature" that is still "in beta phase," and that the driver must pay attention to the road at all times. It would seem this measure is a means for the company to protect itself from liability. As yet, no claims have been brought in the present case.

Yet when such cars become more prevalent, it may become impossible for manufacturers to remain unexposed to risk. Companies will likely face claims of products liability, personal injury, and wrongful death frequently-after all, their insurance policies will be more robust than those of individual drivers, and victims may be able to seek greater compensation.

The machines, it seems, will win. Their manufacturers, however, may not.

Tesla's CEO, Elon Musk, has touted the company's self-driving feature as being "better than a person." After the accident, he's been more circumspect, and offered his condolences on Twitter.

Still, he was equally quick to defend the technology. He detailed this is the first fatality in more than 130 million miles where autopilot was activated, where is typically a fatality occurs once every 94 million miles in the U.S. "Autopilot," he said, "is getting better all the time."

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