Tesla Inc. allegedly neglected to address the limitations of its Autopilot system following a tragic accident in Florida in 2016, which claimed the life of a driver. This is according to claims made in a lawsuit filed by the victim’s family over a similar fatal collision in 2019, which is now proceeding to a jury trial.
According to recently disclosed testimonies from multiple engineers, Tesla did not make any modifications to its driver-assistance technology to accommodate for potential collisions during the almost three-year period between the two accidents. These accidents involved Tesla vehicles crashing into the sides of trucks and resulted in the deaths of the Tesla drivers.
Tesla’s Growing Legal Troubles
After extensively promoting autonomous driving as the future of transportation, Tesla is facing legal pressure. Many customers claim that Tesla has exaggerated the capabilities of its self-driving technology.
Tesla is facing multiple investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regarding potential defects in Autopilot. Autopilot has been linked to at least 17 deaths since June 2021.
In addition, Tesla recalled more than 350,000 vehicles earlier this year due to problems with Full Self-Driving (a more advanced form of Autopilot). The recall even spread to Canada.
According to The Mercury News, the upcoming trial will be the first case involving a death attributed to Autopilot.
The trial will present a clash between Musk’s repeated claims that Tesla vehicles are the safest on the market and the testimonies of technology experts. These experts are expected to argue that the company’s marketing has induced a false sense of security among drivers.
Musk himself was exempted from being questioned in this case by a Florida judge last year. However, in a 2020 deposition of Tesla’s former director of Autopilot software, Christopher “CJ” Moore, it was revealed that Musk is deeply involved in defining the product and in making key decisions regarding Autopilot’s functionality.
Tesla’s legal representatives have not yet provided any comments on the matter.
The automaker asserts that it has been transparent about the limitations of Autopilot, including challenges related to detecting traffic crossing in front of its vehicles. Tesla warns drivers in its owner’s manual and on car screens to remain alert and ready to assume control of the vehicle at any given moment.
The Current Court Case in Florida
A legal case is set to be presented to a jury in Palm Beach County, Florida, on behalf of the family of Jeremy Banner. Banner, a 50-year-old father of three, activated Autopilot on his Tesla vehicle moments before colliding with a tractor-trailer in 2019.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation revealed that Banner likely did not notice the truck crossing the highway he was commuting on, and Autopilot also failed to detect it.
Testimonies provided by two Tesla engineers indicated that Autopilot was not designed to identify cross traffic during that time, despite the company’s awareness of potential cross traffic.
Banner’s widow has amended her complaint to seek punitive damages. She claims that Tesla should have reprogrammed Autopilot to disengage in hazardous situations, based on a prior incident in which a Tesla driver crashed into the side of a truck in 2016.
The amended complaint alleges intentional misconduct and gross negligence on the part of Tesla for selling a vehicle with a flawed Autopilot system.
The Banner family has hired Mary “Missy” Cummings, a Duke University professor, as an expert witness. Cummings argues that Tesla failed to adequately test and improve Autopilot between the two accidents.
Tesla promised to fix Autopilot after the 2016 crash, and it claims that it did.
Tesla claims that it modified its driver-assistance system to improve the identification of potential obstacles. It purportedly did this by enhancing the radar system and prioritizing radar over camera sensors. This adjustment was made due to difficulties in distinguishing the white side of a tractor-trailer against a bright sky.
However, Trey Lytal (the Banner family’s attorney) is not buying it. He says that the similar nature of the two crashes proves that Tesla learned nothing from the 2016 accident. Lytal also says that Tesla received warnings from US government regulators regarding Autopilot’s use on roads with cross traffic.
The official name of the case is Banner v. Tesla Inc.