Tesla, the groundbreaking electric vehicle company led by Elon Musk, is facing mounting legal challenges concerning its Autopilot system. The company is set to defend its technology in an upcoming trial that centers on a fatal crash that occurred in 2019, eerily reminiscent of a 2016 accident. Both accidents involved Tesla vehicles colliding with the side of trucks, leading to the death of the drivers. Testimonies from several company engineers have emerged, suggesting that Tesla did not significantly alter its Autopilot system to prevent such accidents from recurring.
For nearly a decade, Tesla and Musk have championed autonomous driving as the pathway to safer roads. However, these incidents, coupled with multiple investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into Autopilot-linked deaths, have raised significant concerns. Regulators, consumers, investors, and even federal prosecutors are now probing if Tesla might have oversold the capabilities of its autonomous driving technology.
The upcoming trial, slated for October, could potentially shape the future discourse on autonomous vehicles. While Musk firmly maintains that Tesla vehicles are unparalleled in safety, experts are expected to counter-argue, suggesting that Tesla’s marketing tactics may have engendered an overconfidence in drivers regarding Autopilot’s capabilities. Although Musk won’t be testifying, insights from a 2020 deposition of Tesla’s former director of Autopilot software, Christopher “CJ” Moore, have shed light on Musk’s deep involvement with the product.
Tesla has long contended that its communication about the limitations of the Autopilot system has been transparent and comprehensive. The company routinely emphasizes the importance of driver vigilance, even when Autopilot is activated. A recent victory in Los Angeles, where Tesla was exonerated over a non-fatal Autopilot incident, might provide a precedent in its favor. However, the case in Palm Beach County, Florida, seems more intricate. It was initiated by the family of Jeremy Banner, who died when his Model 3 crashed into a truck in 2019, mere moments after activating Autopilot.
Accusations against Tesla have intensified, with some alleging that the company was aware of the system’s limitations, particularly concerning cross traffic. Banner’s widow has recently modified her lawsuit to demand punitive damages, arguing that the company should have improved the Autopilot after a similar fatal accident in 2016.
Expert witness Mary “Missy” Cummings, a prominent critic of Autopilot, asserts that Tesla exaggerated the prowess of its technology. Despite Tesla’s claims of refining its system post the 2016 crash, critics argue that the changes were insufficient. The recommendation from an NTSB investigation after the 2016 incident was that semi-autonomous systems should be restricted to compatible road conditions.
Trey Lytal, representing the Banner family, emphasized that Tesla should have heeded previous warnings about the Autopilot system’s limitations. He stressed the gravity of the situation, stating that the same system flaw led to two fatalities, three years apart.