Tesla faces trial over Autopilot’s role in fatal 2018 crash with new evidence

Tesla is preparing to face another trial on whether Autopilot was to blame in a fatal accident. The trial, arising from a crash in March 2018 that claimed the life of an Apple engineer, Walter Huang, follows two previous trials last year that found Tesla was not liable for misuse of its Autopilot system.

Tesla has always maintained that Autopilot does not make vehicles fully autonomous, and requires drivers to remain alert and be ready to take control of the vehicle at any time. Despite these warnings, which appear on Tesla’s website, owner’s manuals, and in the car when the feature is activated, drivers still attempt to flout them.

It is these warnings and disclaimers that have allowed Tesla to be successful and found not liable in two trials last year, one involving injuries and another involving a fatality. Despite the precedent, this lawsuit against Tesla suggests that the company might have anticipated challenges with driver attentiveness and potentially neglected sufficient measures to mitigate these risks.

The case, first reported by Reuters, draws upon a new piece of evidence: an email from Tesla’s former president Jon McNeill, sent just weeks before the first fatal accident in the US involving Autopilot in 2016. In it, McNeill recounts his experience of becoming so engrossed in emails and calls while using Autopilot that he missed highway exits.

ALSO READ: Tesla driver suggests Autopilot and email distraction are to blame for fatal accident

The plaintiffs argue this email indicates Tesla’s awareness of the potential for drivers to not pay attention while using Autopilot, questioning whether Tesla took adequate steps to protect drivers from foreseeable misuse.

According to deposition transcripts, Tesla did not conduct research on how quickly drivers could regain control if Autopilot unexpectedly veered towards an obstacle before the 2018 accident. It wasn’t until 2021, three years after first considering the idea, that Tesla introduced its driver-monitoring software. This delay in implementing a more robust driver-monitoring system may challenge Tesla’s assertions about the safety of its Autopilot system.

If the plaintiff’s lawyers can demonstrate that Tesla reasonably foresaw the misuse of its system but failed to take preventive measures, the company could be held liable. If the case does end up going against Tesla, it could set a precedent for others pursuing claims against Tesla, potentially exposing the company to significant monetary judgments.

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