Tesla is preparing to face its first trial defending itself against claims that its Autopilot driver assistance feature is responsible for a fatality. This legal battle is expected to test Elon Musk’s statements regarding the technology significantly. According to Musk, self-driving capability holds immense importance for Tesla’s financial prospects. However, the allegations from the plaintiffs in one of the ongoing lawsuits challenge this notion. They claim that Musk personally spearheaded the team behind the technology that malfunctioned, putting his reputation as an engineering leader on the line.
The outcome of this trial holds implications not only for Tesla’s legal standing but also for its market confidence and sales of the software itself. With a price tag of up to $15,000 per vehicle, this software can gain or lose based on the trial’s results.
Tesla is currently facing a series of legal challenges, starting with two upcoming trials set to take place in quick succession.
Dual Trials: Tesla Autopilot Lawsuits and Company’s Defense
The first trial, scheduled for mid-September in a California state court, revolves around a civil lawsuit. This lawsuit alleges that Tesla’s Autopilot system was responsible for a tragic incident involving Micah Lee’s Model 3. According to the claims, while travelling 65 miles per hour on a highway east of Los Angeles, the car suddenly veered off the road, collided with a palm tree, and caught fire within seconds.
The incident occurred in 2019 and has not been publicly disclosed until now. Regrettably, the crash resulted in the loss of Micah Lee’s life and caused severe injuries to his two passengers. Among the injured was an 8-year-old boy at the time, who suffered particularly grievous harm. The lawsuit against Tesla by the passengers and Lee’s estate contends that Tesla was aware of defects in the Autopilot system and other safety features when they sold the vehicle.
The upcoming second trial, scheduled for early October in a Florida state court, stems from a 2019 incident just north of Miami. During this incident, the owner of the vehicle, Stephen Banner, was involved in a collision when his Model 3 drove underneath the trailer of an 18-wheeler truck that had entered the road. Tragically, the crash resulted in the Tesla roof being torn off, leading to the loss of Stephen Banner’s life. The lawsuit, filed by Banner’s wife, alleges that Tesla’s Autopilot system failed to take any actions to prevent the crash, such as braking or steering away from the truck.
Further, the company noted, “There are no self-driving cars on the road today.”
Elon Musk’s Role and Tesla’s Legal Battles Over Autopilot Technology
The upcoming civil proceedings will likely uncover fresh evidence regarding what Elon Musk and other company executives were aware of regarding Tesla’s Autopilot system’s capabilities and potential shortcomings. In a recent court filing before the trial, lawyers representing Banner have asserted that internal emails indicate Musk’s prominent role as the informal leader of the Autopilot team.
Although Reuters’ inquiries for this piece went unanswered by both Tesla and Musk, it’s no secret that Musk has been actively involved in developing self-driving software, often sharing his experiences of test-driving Tesla vehicles equipped with the “Full Self-Driving” software on Twitter. Despite his consistent claims over the years that Tesla was on the brink of achieving full self-driving capability, the company has repeatedly failed to meet the targets he set.
In a significant trial in Los Angeles earlier this year, Tesla secured a favourable outcome by asserting that it explicitly advises drivers that their technology necessitates ongoing human supervision, notwithstanding the names “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving.” The trial centred around an incident in which a Model S veered into a curb, causing injury to the driver. Speaking to Reuters after the verdict, jurors indicated that they were convinced Tesla had indeed warned drivers about the system’s limitations, placing the blame on driver distraction.
The upcoming trials in September and October hold significant importance for Tesla. These trials begin a series of legal proceedings concerning their Autopilot technology, extending into next year. The gravity of these trials is heightened by the unfortunate loss of lives in incidents related to their technology.
Legal Strategies and Claims in Tesla Autopilot Lawsuits
Matthew Wansley, a former General Counsel on nuTonomy, an automated driving startup and Associate Professor of Law at Cardozo School of Law, said, “If Tesla backs up a lot of wins in these cases, I think they’re going to get more favourable settlements in other cases.”
However, according to Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, a substantial loss for Tesla, particularly accompanied by a significant damages award, can significantly influence the future narrative.
In legal documents, Tesla has argued that Lee had consumed alcohol before assuming vehicle control. Additionally, the company asserts that it remains unclear whether Autopilot was activated during the accident.
While Jonathan Michaels, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, refrained from commenting on Tesla’s specific claims, he did emphasize that they are well-informed about Tesla’s inaccurate assertions. He pointed out their unethical endeavours to shift blame onto the victims for their faulty autopilot system deficiencies.
In the Florida lawsuit, Banner’s legal representatives also lodged a motion contending that punitive damages were justifiable. These lawyers have conducted questioning sessions with numerous Tesla executives and gained access to internal company documents. These documents purportedly indicate that both Musk and the engineers were aware of the shortcomings in the system but failed to rectify them.
Tesla’s Autopilot Limitations and Legal Battles: Depositions and Transparency
During one of the depositions, former executive Christopher Moore attested to the limitations of Autopilot. He noted that the system “is not designed to detect every possible hazard or every possible obstacle or vehicle that could be on the road,” as stated in a transcript evaluated by Reuters.
In 2016, a few months after a fatal accident where a Tesla crashed into a semi-trailer truck, Musk told reporters that the automaker was updating Autopilot with improved radar sensors that likely would have prevented the fatality.
But Adam (Nicklas) Gustafsson, a Tesla Autopilot systems engineer who investigated both accidents in Florida, said that in the almost three years between that 2016 crash and Banner’s accident, no changes were made to Autopilot’s systems to account for cross-traffic, according to court documents submitted by plaintiff lawyers.
The lawyers tried to blame the lack of change on Musk. “Elon Musk has acknowledged problems with the Tesla autopilot system not working properly,” almost everything” he did at Tesla was done at the request of “Elon,” according to the documents.
Tesla filed an emergency motion in court late on Wednesday seeking to keep deposition transcripts of its employees and other documents secret. Banner’s attorney, Lake “Trey” Lytal III, said he would oppose the motion.
In a text message, he wrote, “The great thing about our judicial system is Billion Dollar Corporations can only keep secrets for so long.”