Judge Suggests Tesla and Elon Musk Were Aware of Autopilot’s Shortcomings

A Florida judge has concluded a plaintiff has brought “reasonable evidence” suggesting that Tesla CEO Elon Musk and other executives were aware of weaknesses and shortcomings in the Autopilot system.

The case stems from a 2019 incident north of Miami, where Stephen Banner’s Tesla Model 3 collided with the trailer of an 18-wheeler, resulting in Banner’s death. Judge Reid Scott’s decision allows the plaintiff to proceed with punitive damages claims against Tesla, alleging intentional misconduct and gross negligence.

According to a report from Reuters, the judge pointed out that Tesla employed a marketing strategy that portrayed its products as autonomous, and Musk’s public statements had a considerable impact on consumers’ beliefs about the capabilities of the Autopilot system. This finding suggests that Tesla may have downplayed or misrepresented the limitations of its technology.

Furthermore, the judge highlighted similarities between Banner’s fatal crash and a 2016 incident involving Joshua Brown, where the Autopilot system failed to detect crossing trucks. The judge concluded that it would be reasonable to assume that Tesla, through its CEO and engineers, was aware of the Autopilot system’s weaknesses.

“It would be reasonable to conclude that the Defendant Tesla through its CEO and engineers was acutely aware of the problem with the ‘Autopilot’ failing to detect cross traffic,” Judge Scott wrote.

The ruling also allows Banner’s wife to argue that Tesla’s warnings in its manuals and “clickwrap” agreement were inadequate. This indicates potential shortcomings in how Tesla communicated the risks associated with the Autopilot system to its users.

In his decision the judge referenced a 2016 video that showcased a vehicle driving without human intervention.

“Absent from this video is any indication that the video is aspirational or that this technology doesn’t currently exist in the market,” the judge wrote.

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