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Tesla Autopilot — Driver Charged After Fatal Crash

The driver of a Tesla Model S has been charged with a felony after a crash in which two people died.

A Tesla driver who was involved in a fatal collision while using Autopilot has been charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter by prosecutors in California. According to The Guardian, police say on December 29, 2019, a Tesla Model S operated by Kevin George Aziz Riad, age 27, was moving at a high rate of speed when it left a freeway, ran a red light in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena, and struck a Honda Civic at an intersection.

The criminal charging documents do not mention Autopilot, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which sent investigators to the scene of the crash, has confirmed that Autopilot was in use in the Tesla at the time of the crash.

Two people in the Civic, Gilberto Alcazar Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez, died at the scene. Riad and a woman in the Tesla were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. Riad has entered a plea of not guilty to the charges and is free on bail while the case is pending. He appears to be the first person to be charged with a felony in the United States for a fatal crash involving a motorist who was using a partially automated driving system.

Bryant Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies automated vehicles, said this is the first US case to his knowledge in which serious criminal charges were filed in a fatal crash involving a partially automated driver assist system. An Uber test driver was charged with negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, after the vehicle she was driving struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018. Tesla, Smith said, could be “criminally, civilly, or morally culpable” if it is found to have put a dangerous technology on the road.

In fact, the families of Lopez and Nieves-Lopez have sued Tesla and Riad in separate lawsuits. They allege negligence by Riad and accuse Tesla of selling defective vehicles that can accelerate suddenly and that lack an effective automatic emergency braking system. A joint trial is scheduled for mid-2023.

Donald Slavik, a Colorado lawyer who has served as a consultant in automotive technology lawsuits, including many against Tesla, said he also is unaware of any previous felony charges being filed against a US driver who was using partially automated driver technology involved in a fatal crash.

In court documents, the lawsuit filed by Lopez’s family claims the Tesla “suddenly and unintentionally accelerated to an excessive, unsafe, and uncontrollable speed.” The suit filed by the family of Nieves-Lopez says that Riad was an unsafe driver who had multiple moving violations on his driving record and was incapable of handling such a high-performance car.

The prosecutors, defense lawyers, and attorneys for Tesla have all declined to discuss the matter with the press. The NHTSA has issued a statement saying there is no vehicle on sale that can drive itself and whether or not a car is using a partially automated driving system, “every vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times. It added that all state laws hold human drivers responsible for operation of their vehicles. Though automated systems can help drivers avoid crashes, the agency said, the technology must be used responsibly.”

For its part, Tesla continually warns drivers that Autopilot and its more advance Full Self Driving system cannot drive themselves and that drivers must pay attention and be ready to take control of the vehicle at anytime.

Tesla Autopilot — The Takeaway

The upshot of all this is that if you are using Autopilot and are involved in a fatal collision, saying “The car did it, not me.” is likely to get you a one-way ticket to prison. As humans, we have a built-in bias that assumes machines will always do exactly what they are expected to do and we are always surprised when they don’t.

This may be the first time felony charges have been brought after a fatal crash involving Autopilot or any other self-driving technology, but it won’t be the last. Have you seen the latest Chevy Silverado commercial that glories in the joy of driving with no hands on the wheel? We can’t believe that one got past GM’s team of legal eagles. Unless and until self-driving systems become as safe as elevators, a word to the wise is: drive as if your life depends on it. Because your life, and that of the drivers on the road with you, is in your hands, not the tender ministrations of some machine. Guide yourselves accordingly.

Author’s Note: This crash occurred in 2019. The trial is not expected to take place until sometime in 2023. America has a court system. What it lacks is a justice system.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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