The May 7 fatal collision involving a Tesla Model S sedan while apparently in semiautonomous Autopilot mode complicates the auto industry's path to fully self-driving vehicles.
While a single death may not substantially influence public acceptance of autonomous vehicle technology, nobody wants to risk a potential consumer backlash to a budding major technology.
One attraction of vehicles that could navigate roads without human intervention is increased safety. Most traffic deaths are caused by human error, so taking people out of the equation should greatly reduce collisions, injuries and deaths, the logic goes.
The dilemma is the multiple routes to fully autonomous vehicles. Most manufacturers are taking conventional paths, gradually adding extensively tested driver-assistance features piecemeal, building toward full autonomy sometime next decade. Others, such as Tesla Motor, push to get advanced and integrated safety features on the road sooner and use feedback from customers to fine-tune systems.
While automakers seek the right pace -- neither needlessly delaying life-saving technology nor prematurely introducing buggy systems -- some basics must occur.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is preparing new guidelines for safe deployment of autonomous vehicles. That should receive priority.
Manufacturers should step up off-road testing of advanced safety technologies. When those features are ready for on-road testing, carmakers should require drivers to actively monitor any driver-assist and fully autonomous systems.
As new safety features are introduced on production vehicles, manufacturers should redouble efforts to educate owners about system limitations.
Finally, there should be no beta testing on public roads.
However enthused about a vehicle's self-driving capabilities, owners must not test the limits putting the safety of others at risk. If the Tesla crash had involved anything other than an unoccupied trailer, the reaction would be far different. What if it had been a van carrying a family?
There's no room for buyers to conduct freelance product validation on public roads.