Elon Musk’s company, Tesla Inc., is on trial for the first time after allegations that a glitch in its Autopilot driver assistance system led to fatalities in 2019.
The ability to drive automatically is one of Tesla’s big bets, and the company’s financial future depends on it, as Elon Musk himself puts it. A legal victory could boost trust and sales for the software, which costs as much as $15,000 per vehicle.
The civil lawsuit includes allegations that the autopilot system caused owner Micah Lee’s Model 3 to suddenly go off an east Los Angeles freeway at 40 miles per hour and crash into a palm tree, bursting into flames, resulting in his death and serious injuries to two passengers.
The lawsuit filed against Tesla by passengers and Lee’s estate alleges that Tesla knew when the car was sold that the autopilot and other safety systems were faulty.
The second trial, scheduled for early October in a Florida court, stemmed from a 2019 accident north of Miami in which owner Stephen Banner’s Model 3 ran under the trailer of a large 18-wheeler parked at the Street stop and the car’s roof severed Tesla, killing Banner. The autopilot did not brake, turn, or do anything to avoid the collision, Banner’s wife said in the lawsuit.
Tesla denied responsibility for both accidents, blaming driver error and saying Autopilot is safe when monitored by humans. Tesla said in court documents that drivers should pay attention to the road and keep their hands on the wheel. “There are no more autonomous cars on the roads today,” the company said.
Tesla actually won a court case in April with this strategy, which, despite being labeled “autopilot” and “fully autonomous driving,” alerts drivers that their technology requires human supervision. The case involved an accident in which a Model S hit the curb, injuring its driver. The jury concluded that Tesla warned drivers about its system and that driver distraction was to blame.
However, there are deaths in the upcoming court cases, which could completely change the legal strategy that the company has supported so far.