Is Tesla liable if a driver dies on Autopilot

Is Tesla liable if a driver dies on Autopilot

Tesla will face a jury Thursday over the role its Autopilot features may have played in a calamitous 2019 crash here, among the first in a string of cases involving the technology that will be litigated around the country in the coming months.

Thursday’s trial concerns the death of Micah Lee, who was allegedly using Autopilot features in his Tesla Model 3 while driving his family down a highway at 65 miles per hour. Suddenly, court documents say, the car jerked off the road, crashed into a palm tree and burst into flames. Lee died in the collision, while his son and wife were severely injured.

Lee’s estate sued Tesla, arguing that the company knew its assisted-driving technology and enhanced safety features were defective when it sold the car. Thursday’s opening arguments will probably offer a glimpse into Tesla’s strategy for defending its Autopilot features, which have been linked to more than 700 crashes since 2019 and at least 17 fatalities, according to a Washington Post analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

The cluster of trials set for the next year will also probably demonstrate how much the technology actually relies on human intervention — despite CEO Elon Musk’s claims that cars operating in Autopilot are safer than those controlled by humans. The outcomes could amount to a pivotal moment for Tesla, which has for years tried to absolve itself from responsibility when one of its cars on Autopilot is involved in a crash.

“For Tesla to continue to get its technology on the road, it is going to have to be successful in these cases,” said Ed Walters, who teaches autonomous vehicle law at Georgetown University. “If it faces a lot of liability from accidents … it is going to be very hard for Tesla to continue getting this tech out.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

The company is facing several other lawsuits around the country involving its Autopilot technology. Some take issue with Tesla’s marketing of its autonomous features and argue it lulls drivers into a false sense of complacency.

Many of the cases heading to trial in the next year involve crashes that occurred several years ago, a reflection of the increased use of driver-assisted features and of the lengthy legal process involved in bringing such a case through the court system. In the years since, Tesla has continued to roll out its technology — some of it still in a test phase — to hundreds of thousands more vehicles on the nation’s roadways.

Autopilot, which Tesla introduced in 2014, is a suite of features that enables the car to maintain speed and distance behind other vehicles and follow lane lines, among other tasks. Tesla says drivers must monitor the road and intervene when necessary.

“To be clear,” Tesla has said in court filings, “Autopilot is an advanced driver assistance system. … It is not a self-driving technology and does not replace the driver.”

While Teslas still require a human to be paying attention behind the wheel, the increasingly capable driver-assistance systems — and growing prevalence of features rooted in automation on the nation’s roads — have prompted legislators and safety advocates to push for more regulation. Musk has repeatedly touted the safety and sophistication of his technology over human drivers, citing crash rates when the modes of driving are compared.

In several of the cases headed to trial within the next year, cars allegedly on Autopilot didn’t act as they were expected to — unexpectedly accelerating, for instance, or not reacting when another vehicle was in front of them. In one case, expected to go before a jury in the coming months, a 50-year-old man driving on Autopilot was killed when his Tesla plowed under a semi truck.

Another case concerns a Tesla in Autopilot that ran through an intersection while the driver wasn’t paying attention, hit a parked car and killed a person standing outside the vehicle. Then, in another, a Tesla in Autopilot rear-ended a car that changed lanes in front of the Tesla. A 15-year-old was thrown from the front car, killing him. The suit alleges that the Tesla did not see or react to the traffic conditions in front of it.

Faced with a sharp increase in Tesla-related crashes involving Autopilot, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened dozens of investigations into the collisions over the past few years. The NHTSA has also issued 16 recalls of the 2019 Tesla Model 3 and opened seven investigations into aspects of the technology — like sudden unintended acceleration and crashes with emergency vehicles.

The 2019 crash involving Lee is not being investigated by the NHTSA, and a spokesperson for the agency declined to explain why. The agency has also said that a report of a crash involving driver assistance does not itself imply that the technology was the cause.

“NHTSA reminds the public that all advanced driver assistance systems require the human driver to be in control and fully engaged in the driving task at all times,” NHTSA spokesperson Veronica Morales previously told The Post. “Accordingly, all state laws hold the human driver responsible for the operation of their vehicles.”

Before Lee’s car collided with the palm tree, court documents say, he attempted to regain control of the car, but “Autopilot and/or Active Safety features would not allow.” That failure, according to the complaint, led to Lee’s “gruesome and ultimately fatal injuries.”

“Had the vehicle’s Autopilot and/or Active Safety features operated properly, decedent Micah Lee’s death would have been avoided,” according to the court documents. According to a toxicology report taken after the crash, Lee’s blood alcohol content level of 0.051 percent suggested he may have consumed alcohol before the crash — though he was still within the legal limit in California.

Along with alleging the software was defective, the complaint also outlines several allegations related to the physical design of the car. In response to the complaint, Tesla said the car was not in “a defective condition at any time when it left the possession, custody or control of Tesla.”

Regardless of the outcome of the trials, said David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, they will at least highlight how the United States needs more regulation on the emerging technology.

“The drivers (of Teslas) understand the risks,” Zipper said. “But even if they accept that, what about everyone on a public road or street who is not in a Tesla? None of us signed on to be a guinea pig.”

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