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Tesla Autopilot Fatality Lawsuit Doesn't Hold Back
Can Tesla shrug this off? Possibly not.
Through Tesla, Musk is beckoning in the future of carbon-free and autonomous transport. At least, that is the narrative and hype that has spread through the internet for the past decade. But, behind this noble and visionary company are some somewhat questionable and worrying practices. You see, from a certain point of view, Tesla uses its drivers as expendable guinea pigs to develop their multi-billion dollar software. But a lawsuit going on right now could cause this controversial approach to massively backfire on Musk and Tesla. So the question has to be asked: can Tesla survive this onslaught?
Firstly, let’s look at the case. This trial is a civil lawsuit in the California state court, which accuses Tesla’s Autopilot system of causing Micah Lee’s Model 3 to suddenly veer off a highway east of Los Angeles at 65 mph, hitting a palm tree and bursting into flames. This 2019 crash happened in only a few seconds, leaving Lee dead and seriously injuring his two passengers. One of these passengers was an 8-year-old boy who was disembowelled.
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Needless to say, if such a deadly and graphic accident was caused by Musk’s self-driving software, mass repercussions are in order. This lawsuit was filed against Tesla by the passengers and Lee’s estate, and it accuses Tesla of being aware that the Autopilot and other safety systems were defective when it sold the car. In particular, the attorney for the plaintiffs, Jonathan Michaels, said in his opening statements that the $6,000 “full self-driving capability package” Lee had bought for his vehicle was in “beta,” meaning it was not yet ready for release to the general public. He went on to say that the accident was caused by the Model 3 making a sharp 43-degree speed, adding that “excessive steering command is a known issue at Tesla.”
Such sudden veering from Tesla’s self-driving system has been recorded before. Donut Media has a great video on this problem. However, no such incidents have been recorded at such high speeds before.
Okay, so what was Tesla’s defence?
Well, first off, Tesla’s lawyers managed to get Musk’s public statements about Autopilot excluded from the trial. This is a massive shock, as Musk has for years waxed lyrical about how brilliant and safe their Autopilot system is. He has even claimed that the only reason a driver needs to be in the car is legal. Now, Tesla doesn’t have a PR team; Musk is effectively the PR and marketing for the company, so to have his over-exaggerated claims about Autopilot removed from such a trial is worrying, to say the least. Tesla’s lawyers then went on to deny that such a sharp turn at speed could have happened, as the Autopilot system puts “guardrails” on the angle of the steering wheel at high speeds. They also reiterated that Autopilot is a driver-assistant system, not a fully autonomous system, despite what Musk has claimed about it. As such, the attorney for Tesla, Michael Carey, said, “The case is not about Autopilot,” and that “Autopilot makes a road safer. It is a good thing.” He even said that, “It is a classic human error that caused the crash.” The only evidence they have for such statements is that Tesla claims they can’t determine if the car had Autopilot engaged at the time of the accident. Considering how well Tesla harvests data, this seems, at the very least, a bit of a suspicious redaction.
So, do the plaintiffs have a good case? Well, despite Tesla getting Musk’s statements removed from the trial, they actually have a good case. Firstly, Tesla’s assurance that there are software limits on steering angle at high speeds doesn’t add up to standards. This has precedent; look at Kyle Hill’s video on the Therac 25, which had software-based safety systems, not hardware safety systems. Sadly, this software had unknown bugs, rendering the software-based safety parameters moot, leading to an unsafe operation that killed multiple people. It is more than reasonable to think such bugs can exist in Tesla’s Autopilot system. Especially as this system was sold as a “beta” system. This isn’t just a throwaway label; it means the software isn’t finished and not ready for public release. So even without the argument that Musk’s false statements about how good Autopilot is what led to Lee’s “improper use” of the system, they still stand a chance against Tesla’s top flight Lawyers, especially as it seems Tesla has no solid evidence to contradict the evidence against them.
But again, Tesla and Musk have a habit of winning cases like this, thanks to how good their lawyers are.
And, quite frankly, they have far more at stake here than you might think. Tesla has won cases in the past where Autopilot has injured people, but this is the first case in which it may have killed someone. This means there are not only severe repercussions if they lose, such as manslaughter charges, but it could set a precedent and lead to more cases like this against Tesla.
For example, the DoJ is criminally investigating Tesla for mis-selling Autopilot, leading to its misuse. Altogether, the DoJ is looking at dozens of crashes which have been reported to have been caused by Autopilot, several of them lethal. If this case swings against Tesla, then the DoJ could bring a charge against Tesla and Musk, as they absolutely will have Musk’s baseless claims about how good Autopilot is as part of their suit.
But there might actually be even more at stake than that!
You see, Tesla is arguably the world’s most overvalued stock. This has enabled Musk to pull down excessive amounts of loans and funding, enabling Tesla’s expansion and even his purchasing of Twitter. This high stock value is partly because they are a leader in EV technology; however, their lead here is slipping away. Musk himself has said that Tesla’s value is based on its self-driving technology, as, according to him, they are lightyears ahead of everyone else, and such technology could change transport as we know it.
However, this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. This statement might have been true a few years ago, but since 2021, when Musk went against the advice of his engineers and made Autopilot a visual-only system, they have made little advances. This is because you need a plethora of backup and high-fidelity sensors like LIDAR, RADAR and ultrasonic sensors to create self-driving systems that are reliable and robust enough to cope with the changeable conditions on the road and avoid dangerous operations. In other words, you need many sensor types to give a backup and more physical safety systems, not just software safety systems.
In fact, Audi, Mercedes and even BMW now have cars with a higher level of autonomous driving than Tesla, thanks to the fact they are using these extra sensors. A recent report even found that Tesla’s Autopilot ranked 7th among other driver-assist systems available on the market!
So, if Tesla loses this case, they could face serious charges, a full-blow DoJ charge, and the sheen of their overly hyped software, which has bloated their stock price and driven their growth, could be tarnished. I won’t go as far as to say this lawsuit could topple Tesla. But it could definitely be a turning point in the public’s perception of the company and even limit Musk’s propaganda-like PR of the company.
So, there is a chance Tesla can shrug this off. But this case could trigger a domino fall that could impact Tesla and Musk immensely. We can only wait and see how these legal proceedings unfold and hope the truth and justice will ensue.
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