Tesla wins landmark Autopilot car crash case

Tesla was found by a Los Angeles jury not to be at fault following a trial over a driver’s claim that the Autopilot feature in her Model S caused her to veer into the center median of a city street, according to a court clerk.

Justine Hsu, who suffered face injuries in the 2019 crash, alleged negligence, fraud and breach of contract in her 2020 suit.

The verdict gives the electric-car maker a victory in what appears to be first such case to go to trial amid years of controversy over the safety record of its driver-assist feature and continuing federal probes into whether Autopilot has defects.

“Regardless of the verdict of the Hsu case, there remains a question about whether that technology is safe, whether it’s safe to allow consumers to enable it in certain circumstances,” said Michael Brooks, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group.

Tesla argued that Hsu didn’t follow instructions in the manual for her 2016 Model S that the driver must be in control of the car at all times and not to use the “auto steer” function on city streets. When her car crashed, it went through an intersection and her lane shifted to the right.

Hsu didn’t have her hands on the steering wheel and she failed to correct the course of the car, Tesla said.

“The driver must acknowledge and agree that the car is not autonomous before they can even use Autopilot, and they’re reminded of that every time they engage the feature, when this pop-up appears on the instrument panel behind the steering wheel,” Tesla said in a court filing.

Brooks said he questions whether the jury fully “vetted” the issues in the case.

“Tesla knows that people are going to use Autopilot on city streets where they warn people not to and they have the technology as a connected vehicle embedded in every vehicle to easily prevent owners from turning this technology on on city streets,” he said. “But they choose not to do it.

They choose that to allow that foreseeable misuse to occur.”

Attorneys on both sides of the case didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Last year, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began publicly releasing data on crashes involving automated driver-assistance systems, which the agency ordered automakers to self-report. While Tesla reported the vast majority of such collisions, the regulator cautioned that the data was too limited to draw any conclusions about safety.

NHTSA has two active investigations into whether Autopilot is defective. The agency ramped up the first — focused on how Tesla Autopilot handles crash scenes with first-responder vehicles — in June of 2022. It initiated the other probe — pertaining to sudden braking — four months earlier.

Several lawsuits blaming Autopilot for crashes, including fatalities of drivers and passengers, are headed toward trials, possibly in the coming months.

Tesla and its chief executive officer, Elon Musk, also have come under fire for failing to deliver on promises since Autopilot was first introduced about eight years ago that the company would rapidly improve its technology.

Bloomberg News reported in October that US prosecutors and securities regulators were probing whether the company made misleading statements about its vehicles’ automated-driving capabilities.

The Los Angeles verdict was reported earlier by Reuters.

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Tesla wins landmark Autopilot car crash case