Autopilot Crash Results In Felony Charges for Tesla Driver, a First for Driver-Assistance Tech

Autopilot Crash Results In Felony Charges for Tesla Driver, a First for Driver-Assistance Tech
Image: John Thys, Getty Images

California prosecutors have issued the first felony charge for a person using Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance feature. Two counts of vehicular manslaughter were levied against the driver who allegedly had Autopilot engaged when his vehicle ran a red light and killed two people in 2019. The charges, first reported by KPIX 5 and the Associated Press, were filed in October but were just discovered last week. The man behind the Tesla wheel, a 27-year-old limousine driver, has reportedly pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Initial reports of the deadly crash in question involved a Tesla Model S running a red light at high speeds while exiting a freeway in Gardena, California. The vehicle crashed into a Honda Civic at an intersection, killing two passengers in the Civic and hospitalizing a man and a woman in the Tesla. Following the crash, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it had assigned its special crash investigation team to probe the crash.

“Whether a L2 [Level 2] automated driving system is engaged or not, every available vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times, and all State laws hold the human driver responsible for the operation of their vehicles,” an NHTSA spokesperson told Gizmodo, referring to Autopiot’s Level 2 autonomous capabilities. “Certain advanced driving assistance features can promote safety by helping drivers avoid crashes and mitigate the severity of crashes that occur, but as with all technologies and equipment on motor vehicles, drivers must use them correctly and responsibly.”

This marks the first felony charge involving a widely used driver assistance technology. While an Uber driver testing an autonomous system was charged with negligent homicide back in 2020, that system existed in a limited test phase and wasn’t widely available to the general public like Autopilot. And although this case marks the first felony charge involving Autopilot, it’s far from the first time the feature has been implicated in the loss of human life. Since its creation and deployment in 2015, the NHTSA estimates the feature has resulted in at least 10 deaths.

Those deaths and a spate of accidents involving emergency response vehicles led the NHTSA to open a review of Autopilot last year. That investigation covers around 765,000 Model Y, X, S, and 3 vehicles released from 2014 through 2021. The felony also comes two months after what appears to be the first major crash involving Tesla’s more advanced Full Self Driving Mode. Fortunately, nobody died in that case which reportedly saw a Model Y engaged in an FSD crash after mistakenly turning into the wrong lane. It’s worth noting in light of today’s news that, unlike Autopilot, FSD has not yet been involved in any known felony charges.

Tesla’s FSD, which has drawn the ire of some top safety officials, came under renewed scrutiny last week following a new update that introduced an “assertive” driving profile that may lead to Tesla’s engaging in more rolling stops, which could violate U.S. traffic laws.

At this point, the laws around autonomous vehicles remain murky at best. Still, Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies automated vehicles, told KPIX he believes Tesla could be “criminally, civilly or morally culpable,” if it’s found to have put dangerous technology on U.S. roads.

Tesla did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.