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Driver's death sparks new debate about self-driving cars

From California to the opposite side of our country, people are talking this month about the death of a 40-year-old man who was killed when his Tesla Model S allegedly drive into a large semi truck. According to reports, the car's "autopilot" system was engaged and mistook the semi's brightly lit side for the sky, which inevitably led to the crash.

Some consumer safety groups like Consumer Watchdog are calling the accident another example of how much further technology still needs to go before drivers are truly safe in self-driving cars. But is the organization's reaction to the crash founded or could it be a knee-jerk reaction to an incident we still don't fully understand? Let's take a look.

Autonomous versus self-driving: Two terms that mean different things

Fully automated vehicles have always resided in the realm of science-fiction. Not because society wasn't ready for the new innovation but because the technology simply wasn't available to make it happen. In recent years, however, things have changed, giving way to everything from warning lights that tell us when cars are in our blind spots to vehicles that automatically brake before we collide with another vehicle.

But while these autonomous features are beneficial and have likely saved many lives since being introduced, these systems are a far cry from the self-driving vehicles we are expecting down the road. In fact, here is the major distinction needed to assess the recent crash involving the Tesla Model S.

As a Washington Post article points out, the Modela S is only classified as a semi-autonomous vehicle, not a full-fledged self-driving car. Drivers of autonomous and semi-autonomous cars are still required to make decisions concerning a vehicle's trajectory. In a self-driving car, decisions are mostly left to the car's onboard computer.

Although Google and some automakers have reported crashes involving self-driving vehicles, the existence of these crashes do not reflect on the potential safety risk autonomous vehicles pose and vice versa. As with any accident, it's important to discover who's truly at fault before making quick determinations that rarely benefit the victims of these crashes in the end.

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