Sunday, April 23, 2017

(im)Perfect Storm

Technology fascinates me. I have recently focused on artificial intelligence in Artificial Intelligence in our World, and Another AI Invasion, Meritocracy? I have contemplated chatbots, and research, self driving cars, and more. Recently, Bob Wilson wrote about technology and essentially concluded that the changes that face us will not come abruptly and so we will all adapt. I thought of much of this as I read a recent article about a young lady that died in a vehicle accident. Though the thoughts are not linear, there are multiple points there that bear consideration.

Casey Speckman died in a "fiery, explosive wreck." The article on freep.com leads with the fact that she had been drinking ("was drunk"), and that the destroyed vehicle was a Tesla. Many see the Tesla as a harbinger of the world to come, with direct current electrical cars replacing the internal combustion vehicles which dominated the world of our youth. 

The story describes a perfect storm of bad circumstances. First, Ms. Speckman was driving a borrowed car (her boss's Tesla), with which she was less than familiar. She had been drinking (.21 BAC, more than double the legal limit). As she drove appropriately on a one-way street, she was confronted (and likely alarmed) by another vehicle that was driven the wrong way on a one-way street, and directly at her. She evaded the wrong-way driver, but according to witnesses the Tesla she was driving moved very fast. 

It is sad to see a young life extinguished. I have had to confront in recent months that people my age are fragile, and are passing. Just today an actor of my generation, Erin Moran of Happy Days passed at 56. Last year was a tough one for me in that regard, and 2017 is not looking so rosy either.

But it is always a little harder to see someone young pass. Ms. Speckman was likely less than 30, she graduated college in 2007 and law school in 2014. She worked for a software company that provided case management for attorneys, and the founder and owner of that company was the "owner of the Tesla" and the passenger that died with her in the accident.  A bright, educated, young person out in the world being a success. 

I discussed the story with a group of young people. After describing all of this, I asked what the primary lesson might be. I was heartened that the immediate and unanimous response was a resounding "don't drink and drive." That is an important lesson, one that we cannot repeat to ourselves and others often enough. Curiously, the car's owner had only a .17 BAC; still too high for driving. Why did the car owner think the right solution for his inability to drive was giving the keys to someone he had been drinking with? Why would anyone, in the age of Uber and Lyft, in a city full of taxis?

The young driver's, Ms. Speckman's, father recently met with the press about this accident. He alleges "that her odds of surviving" this accident "would have been much better in any other car." He places that blame on two aspects of the Tesla. First, the technology for the electrical system, comprised of an array of batteries. And second, the high performance of the vehicle. 

History has shown us some interesting lawsuits regarding the safety of vehicles. The survivors of actor Paul Walker sued Porsche alleging the vehicle in which he died lacked "essential safety features," according to CNN Money. The survivors of actor Anton Yelchin recently sued Jeep for a wrongful death, alleging that the gear selector in his vehicle was "defective and poorly designed and manufactured," according to The Telegraph.

But it is the performance of the Tesla that is being called into question in Ms. Speckman's accident. A witness to the accident said that the Tesla was moving quickly. He said it "It passed me like a flash." So, it may be that speed is a factor in the crash. Speed encouraged perhaps by the confrontation with the wrong-way driver. Human inclination and reaction may naturally be to accelerate (the old fight or flight ingrained in us all). The inference is that this car might have been able to accelerate like few others. The Freep.com article says that one Tesla model "accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds," from a dead stop. That is fast. Experience teaches us that kind of torque may accelerate eve faster when engaged in an already moving vehicle.

Witnesses also said that an explosion very rapidly followed the Tesla collision with a tree. The explosion was massive, and the resulting  "debris field stretched about 150 yards." 

It turns out the Tesla is powered by a 1,200-pound battery pack made up of several thousand small lithium batteries. The force of the crash apparently broke apart the battery pack. The article alludes to exploding batteries in cell phones and other devices that have been in the news recently. It also notes that there was an investigation into other Tesla battery fires that was closed in 2014 after the company "strengthened the battery compartments." The innuendo is that when these compartments rupture, there can be problems. 

Of course the first lesson of the whole situation is do not drink and drive. The second is that if you cannot drive, handing the keys to someone with whom you have been drinking is not a a "go-to" solution. Even without the alcohol involved, driving a performance care with which you are perhaps not familiar may present challenges and could likewise be dangerous. And finally, it may be that electric cars present some dangers that are unexpected (at least I would not have thought exploding battery). Whether the vehicle itself was responsible in any way, whether batteries can be better protected or safer, are issues beyond my knowledge. It seem possible that over time that will be sorted through litigation. 

So many things could perhaps have been different for Ms. Speckman. Less alcohol, less speed, no driver illegally going the wrong way. It seems it was a perfect storm, and the outcome is tragic. What workers' compensation professional has not seen something just as tragic and preventable and wondered "why?" But hindsight is always 20/20 and the game always looks different from the comfort of your armchair on Monday morning. It is a reminder that the world we live in is dangerous, and the decisions we make may have tragic consequences for us an others.