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Tesla Faces First Trial Over Autopilot's Role in Fatal Crash

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

[Edited] In a significant victory for Tesla, the automaker has emerged triumphant in the first US trial involving allegations that its Autopilot driver assistant feature led to a fatal crash.

Credits: Reuters

This win comes as Tesla faces multiple lawsuits and federal investigations related to the same technology. The verdict marks Tesla's second major win this year, with juries declining to find any defects in its software.

Tesla has been actively testing and rolling out its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving (FSD) system, which CEO Elon Musk considers crucial to the company's future. However, this technology has faced regulatory and legal scrutiny. The outcome of this civil court trial demonstrates that Tesla's arguments are gaining traction, as the ultimate responsibility for accidents on the road rests with the drivers.

The civil lawsuit, filed in Riverside County Superior Court, alleged that the Autopilot system caused Micah Lee's Model 3 to suddenly veer off a highway east of Los Angeles, resulting in a fatal crash. The crash claimed Lee's life and seriously injured his two passengers, including an 8-year-old boy who suffered severe injuries. The plaintiffs sought $400 million in damages, along with punitive damages.

Tesla vehemently denied liability, claiming that Lee had consumed alcohol before getting behind the wheel. The electric vehicle manufacturer also argued that it was unclear whether Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash. After four days of deliberations, the 12-member jury announced that they found no manufacturing defect in the vehicle. The final vote was 9-3 in favor of Tesla.

While the plaintiffs' attorney, Jonathan Michaels, expressed disappointment in the verdict, he acknowledged that the prolonged deliberation suggests a shadow of uncertainty. Tesla, on the other hand, stated that the jury's conclusion was the right one, emphasizing that their cars are well-designed and contribute to road safety.

This victory follows a previous trial in Los Angeles, where Tesla successfully defended itself by asserting that its technology requires human monitoring, despite the names "Autopilot" and "Full Self-Driving." Jurors in that case believed that Tesla adequately warned drivers about the system and attributed the accident to driver distraction.

Legal expert Bryant Walker Smith noted that these outcomes highlight the continued focus on the idea that the responsibility lies with the human driver. However, the Riverside case had unique steering issues, according to Matthew Wansley, a former general counsel of nuTonomy and associate professor at Cardozo School of Law. The jury in this case was specifically asked to evaluate whether a manufacturing defect impacted the steering.

Tesla's shares closed up 1.76% following the verdict. During the trial, the plaintiffs' attorney presented an internal Tesla safety analysis from 2017, which identified "incorrect steering command" as a defect involving an excessive steering wheel angle. Tesla's lawyer argued that the analysis did not identify a defect but was intended to address any potential issues. Subsequently, Tesla engineered a system to prevent similar accidents.

On the stand, Tesla engineer Eloy Rubio Blanco refuted the suggestion that the company named its driver-assistant feature "Full Self-Driving" to mislead people about its capabilities. He stated that Tesla drivers do not believe their vehicles are autonomous.

While Tesla celebrates this legal victory, it still faces a criminal probe by the US Department of Justice over claims that its vehicles can drive themselves. Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the performance of Autopilot following several crashes involving Tesla vehicles and stationary emergency vehicles.

  • Tesla faces its first trial defending against allegations of Autopilot's role in a fatal crash.

  • The outcome will test CEO Elon Musk's claims about the technology and impact Tesla's financial future.

  • Two trials are scheduled, with more to follow, challenging Musk's leadership and Autopilot's reliability.

Source: Reuters

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