Tesla Inc. argued at the start of its first jury trial over a lethal crash involving Autopilot that it was “classic human error” that killed a California driver four years ago, not the company’s driver-assistance technology.
(Bloomberg) — Tesla Inc. argued at the start of its first jury trial over a lethal crash involving Autopilot that it was “classic human error” that killed a California driver four years ago, not the company’s driver-assistance technology.
Elon Musk’s electric vehicle-maker is trying to fend off claims it’s liable for a 2019 wreck when a Model 3 in Autopilot mode suddenly swerved off a freeway and burst into flames, killing a 37-year-old man in the driver’s seat and injuring two passengers, after it slammed into a tree.
The trial in Riverside County marks a significant legal test for Autopilot, as the promise of autonomy is a crucial part of Tesla’s efforts to differentiate itself and a significant factor in its $782 billion valuation. Several similar suits targeting the electric-vehicle maker are headed to trial in coming months.
“This case is not about Autopilot,” Tesla’s attorney, Michael Carey, told jurors in his opening statement on Thursday. “But you’re going to hear in the case that there’s a lot of evidence that Autopilot actually makes the roads safer and it’s a good thing.”
Read More: Tesla Autopilot Faces Scrutiny in First Trial Over Fatal Crash
The family of the deceased driver, Micah Lee, and two passengers who were seriously injured are seeking unspecified monetary damages, including for loss of life, physical injury and mental anguish.
Lee’s blood-alcohol level on the night of the crash was 0.05%, and the police officer who investigated the accident concluded it was caused by Lee who was driving under the influence, Carey said. The state’s legal limit for most adults is 0.08%, but drivers can be arrested with a lower blood-alcohol level if their driving skills are found to be impaired.
The lawyer played a clip from a deposition of injured passenger Lindsay Molander, who recalled that Lee consumed a drink and she had some wine while they were having dinner together at a restaurant in the Downtown Disney District in Anaheim, California, earlier that evening.
‘Fancy Cruise Control’
Jonathan Michaels, the attorney representing Molander and her son Parker Austin, told jurors that Tesla over-hyped Autopilot to stand apart from competitors.
“The truth of the matter is, Tesla is really an Autopilot company,” Michaels said. “You see between the 2017 and 2019 time frame, it was small, it had no experience, it was going up against competitors that have been doing this for 100 years,” so Tesla created the Autopilot program to differentiate itself, he said.
Tesla disregarded consumer safety when it put underdeveloped technology in its electric cars, Michaels argued. “The most important safety rule that governs any car company including Tesla is this one: that a car company should never sell to consumers experimental vehicles,” he said.
Lee paid $6,000 for Tesla’s Full Self-Driving beta testing program and Autopilot as part of his $57,000 purchase price, according to Michaels.
Carey explained that Lee was paying for the Full Self-Driving hardware to make it “future-proof” so he’d have cameras and all the processors on his car when the technology “actually becomes a thing.”
Carey argued that both software programs require an “attentive and alert driver” and all that Autopilot could do at the time of the crash was adaptive cruise and lane centering. “It’s basically fancy cruise control,” he said.
Autopilot makes cars safer than other vehicles, Carey told jurors, saying that it reduces driver fatigue and will slow the car down and automatically switch hazard lights on if a driver takes their hands off the wheel because of a medical emergency like a seizure.
“That’s what Autopilot will do for you,” Carey said. “Trying to prevent crashes and that’s what it’s doing.”
The trial is expected to last a month. Another fatal Autopilot crash trial is scheduled for Oct. 6 in Palm Beach County, Florida.
The case is Molander v. Tesla Inc., RIC2002469, California Superior Court, Riverside County.
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