Tesla is headed to trial over deadly 2018 Autopilot crash

Tesla is headed to trial over deadly 2018 Autopilot crash

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Photo collage featuring a picture of Walter Huang and Sevonne Huang in front of a Tesla sign
Walter Huang (L) and his wife Sevonne Huang.

  • Tesla will go to trial over a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Apple engineer Walter Huang. 
  • The family alleges that flaws in Tesla’s Autopilot system caused the 2018 crash that killed Huang.
  • Tesla could face financial repercussions if a jury finds it was at fault for the collision. 

Apple engineer Walter Huang was killed in a fiery wreck more than six years ago when his Tesla Model X SUV smashed into a concrete barrier on a California highway as the vehicle was in Autopilot mode.

Huang’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Tesla in the aftermath of the crash — and now they’re headed to a civil trial that could cast a negative spotlight on Elon Musk’s electric car company if a jury finds it liable for the collision.

The trial is set to kick off Monday in California’s Santa Clara County Superior Court.

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor and expert in automotive technologies, told Business Insider that the case likely won’t have any real consequences for Tesla, but if it loses it would almost certainly “bolster regulatory scrutiny” around its Autopilot driver-assist software.

“This is one case and Tesla will be able to absorb whatever final damages it ends up with, if any,” in the event that the company lost, said Smith.

A significant jury award could, however, be attention-grabbing.

“It would grab the attention of other lawyers and even other people who’ve said, ‘Hey, my vehicle did something it shouldn’t have,’ or ‘this was wrong’ or ‘I was injured,’ and so it could in that way reshape or reinforce the public conversation,” said Smith.

The lawsuit against Tesla alleges that its Autopilot system caused deadly 2018 crash

Huang’s family alleged in the 2019 lawsuit, which also names the state of California as a defendant, that the Tesla Model X was “defective in its design” and that flaws with Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist software caused the deadly March 23, 2018, morning crash.

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The family said in the lawsuit that Huang was traveling along US Highway 101 in Mountain View and, as his car approached a left exit ramp, “the autopilot feature of the Tesla turned the vehicle left, out of the designated travel lane, and drove it straight into a concrete highway median” at a speed of about 70-miles-per-hour.

The married 38-year-old father of two died because Tesla was “beta testing its Autopilot software on live drivers,” B. Mark Fong, an attorney representing Huang’s family, said in a statement at the time the lawsuit was filed.

tesla model x crash
Walter Huang’s Tesla Model X crashed on March 23, 2018, in Mountain View, California.

NTSB found Tesla’s Autopilot system and Huang both likely played a role in the crash

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that Tesla’s Autopilot system and Huang’s inattention behind the wheel were likely responsible for the crash.

The NTSB said in a report that the probable cause of the crash was the Autopilot system “steering the sport utility vehicle into a highway gore area due to system limitations, and the driver’s lack of response due to distraction likely from a cell phone game application and overreliance on the Autopilot partial driving automation system.”

The federal safety agency described Huang in its report as an avid gamer and game developer who regularly played games on his phone.

A review of data from Huang’s iPhone showed that a game app was active on his cellphone during the drive, but it could not be determined whether he was holding his phone in the seconds before the crash, according to the NTSB’s report.

Huang’s hands were not detected on the steering wheel in the moments before the wreck and he “made no evasive steering or braking input before the crash,” the NTSB said.

Additionally, the NTSB said in its report that Huang “most likely would have survived the collision” if the already damaged crash attenuator — the barrier that the car slammed into — had been repaired in a “timely manner.” The safety barrier was damaged in a prior collision.

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Walter Huang (L) and his wife Sevonne Huang.
Walter Huang (L) and his wife Sevonne Huang.

Tesla has said Huang was responsible for the wreck because he was ‘not paying attention’

In court filings, attorneys for Tesla squarely placed the blame on Huang for the crash, saying that he knew the vehicle was not an “autonomous” one and that he was playing a video game on his phone and “not paying attention.”

Days after the fatal crash, Tesla said in a blog post that Huang “received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive.”

“The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider with the crushed crash attenuator, but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken,” Tesla said in the post.

“According to the family, Mr. Huang was well aware that Autopilot was not perfect and, specifically, he told them it was not reliable in that exact location, yet he nonetheless engaged Autopilot at that location,” a Tesla spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement back in 2018.

“The crash happened on a clear day with several hundred feet of visibility ahead, which means that the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so,” the statement continued.

Tesla also recently revealed to the plaintiffs that it obtained a written statement from an Apple engineer indicating Huang was actively on his iPhone at the time of the crash.

Tesla also wants to call the engineer to testify during the trial, but Huang’s family opposes it.

Representatives for Tesla did not immediately return a request for comment by Business Insider for this story, while attorneys for Huang’s family declined to comment.

Tesla autopilot
The Tesla dashboard

Tesla faces several other lawsuits related to its driver-assist software

Huang’s family is not the first to take Tesla to court over its driver-assist software. Last year, Tesla won two lawsuits involving crashes in which Autopilot was in use. There are also several lawsuits regarding the software that are still awaiting trial.

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Over the past few years, Tesla has come under increased scrutiny from regulators regarding its driver-assist technology, including its marketing of the feature. Last year, Tesla issued a recall via an over-the-air update to address concerns from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regarding the software’s tendency to “act unsafe around intersections.”

“Companies get sued all the time, but Tesla is facing unique and in some ways justified scrutiny of its Autopilot and so-called FSD systems through civil litigation, through civil and even criminal investigations,” Smith told BI. “At some point, all of this can’t help but become a distraction for Tesla’s leadership.”

“The extent and the range and the scope and intensity of all of these legal proceedings does matter,” Smith added.

For now, Tesla’s cars aren’t truly autonomous, but Musk has been promising self-driving cars are on the horizon since 2016, and some companies like Waymo have already achieved Level 4 autonomy — meaning the car can drive in select cities without anyone behind its wheel.

Meanwhile, Tesla has achieved Level 2 autonomy. All current Tesla models come with the carmaker’s Autopilot driver-assist program. Autopilot allows the car to steer itself, switch lanes, as well as brake and accelerate on its own.

Tesla has said the feature requires the supervision of a licensed driver and does not make the vehicle autonomous. The company also offers customers the option to buy its Full Self-Driving beta feature for $12,000 or through a $199 monthly subscription.

The beta feature enables the vehicle to recognize stop signs and traffic lights, and park.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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