Los Angeles news outlet KTLA reports that California prosecutors have brought vehicle manslaughter charges against the driver of a Tesla that was on Autopilot that struck a car and killed two people in 2019.
The latest charges could answer the question many have asked since autonomous cars and Tesla’s autopilot and Level 2 driver-assist system system have debuted: who’s liable in a crash involving a car that’s supposedly “driving itself?”
The initial accident happened in December 2019 in Gardena, California. Kevin George Aziz Riad was behind the wheel of his Model S while it was on Autopilot. The Model S was speeding as it exited the freeway and ran a red light, ploughing into a Honda Civic in the intersection. The Civic was carrying Gilberto Alcazar Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez. Both died at the scene of the crash while Riad and his passenger got off with minor injuries.
The family of the deceased are suing both Riad and Tesla in separate suits with the trial scheduled for next year. The family argues that the car suddenly accelerated and given Riad’s history of traffic-related offences, he shouldn’t have been driving something like a Model S. From ABC News:
Lopez’s family, in court documents, alleges that the car “suddenly and unintentionally accelerated to an excessive, unsafe and uncontrollable speed.” Nieves-Lopez’s family further asserts that Riad was an unsafe driver, with multiple moving infractions on his record, and couldn’t handle the high-performance Tesla.
The crash piqued the interest of federal investigators. And while it appeared that those investigating the crash were careful not to place blame on Autopilot for the crash, the NHTSA confirmed that the system was being used at the time of the crash. From KTLA:
Criminal charging documents do not mention Autopilot. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sent investigators to the crash, confirmed last week that Autopilot was in use in the Tesla at the time of the crash.
Riad initially plead not guilty but is out on bail until his hearing on February 23. It should be noted that while this isn’t the first time charges have been brought against someone for using an automated driving system, it is the first time serious charges have been brought against someone using a system that’s in widespread use:
Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies automated vehicles, said this is the first U.S. case to his knowledge in which serious criminal charges were filed in a fatal crash involving a partially automated driver-assist system. Tesla, he said, could be “criminally, civilly or morally culpable” if it is found to have put a dangerous technology on the road.
Donald Slavik, a Colorado lawyer who has served as a consultant in automotive technology lawsuits, including many against Tesla, said he, too, is unaware of any previous felony charges being filed against a U.S. driver who was using partially automated driver technology involved in a fatal crash.