The family of a Tesla owner killed in a crash in the heart of Silicon Valley while driving his Model X with the Autopilot feature engaged has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the carmaker, claiming the semi-automated driving feature is defective and was the cause.
Walter Huang, who was 38, died when his vehicle slammed into a concrete highway barrier on U.S. 101 in Mountain View, California, on March 23, 2018. The vehicle’s semi-automated system misread lane lines on the road, didn’t detect the concrete median and didn’t brake the Model X, but accelerated into the barrier, according to the complaint filed in the state court for Santa Clara County on April 26.
Tesla is “beta testing its Autopilot software on live drivers,” Mark Fong, a partner at Minami Tamaki, one of the firms representing Huang’s family, said in a statement. “The Huang family wants to help prevent this tragedy from happening to other drivers using Tesla vehicles or any semi-autonomous vehicles.”
Allegations against Tesla in the lawsuit include product liability, defective product design, failure to warn, intentional and negligent misrepresentation and false advertising. The complaint, which didn’t specify the amount of damages being sought, also names the State of California as a defendant for failing to replace a missing guard rail around the median that might have lessened the impact of the crash.
Tesla declined to comment on the lawsuit. The California Attorney General’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit comes a little over a week after CEO Elon Musk touted gains being made in Tesla’s automated drive technology, including a new computer designed specifically for autonomous vehicles, and plans to have “full self-driving” Teslas on the road by as early as next year. Tesla has said that drivers of its current system should always be ready to retake control of the car; the system has visual and audio alerts if hands are away from the steering wheel for an extended period. But the company’s marketing materials and its future-oriented CEO have come under fire for touting Autopilot’s capabilities, possibly encouraging drivers to abdicate more control than is safe.
After the Mountain View crash, the company said it was deeply saddenedand that “safety is at the core of everything we do and every decision we make, so the loss of a life in an accident involving a Tesla vehicle is difficult for all of us.”
In preparing the complaint, Fong said lawyers representing the family had access to Huang’s vehicle, but not to data collected by Tesla. “We had access to the car but the data in the car is proprietary. Tesla possesses that and the ability to decrypt it,” he said during a press conference on Wednesday. “We downloaded what we could that was in the public domain, shall we say, that’s able to be accessed by non-proprietary sources.”
Autopilot is a semi-automated system for use during highway driving and although Tesla cautions drivers to be ready to retake control, Huang wasn’t the first person killed while using it.
There have been multiple accidents, some fatal, involving drivers using Autopilot, beginning most notably with a 2016 crash in Florida that killed 40-year-old Joshua Brown. He was using Autopilot when his car slammed into a truck that crossed his path on a divided highway near Williston, Florida, that the car’s system didn’t detect. Still, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to find any specific flaw in the technology and took no action against the carmaker after concluding a six-month investigation in January 2017.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which began investigating the Huang accident confirmed in a preliminary report that Autopilot was being used at the time of the crash. It also found that his hands were detected on the steering wheel “for a total of 34 seconds, on three separate occasions, in the 60 seconds before impact.” Even so, “the vehicle did not detect the driver’s hands on the steering wheel in the six seconds before the crash.”
The federal agency hasn’t said when its final report will be issued. NTSB removed Tesla as a party to the investigation in April 2018, for “releasing investigative information before it was vetted and confirmed.”
“Such releases of incomplete information often lead to speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash, which does a disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public,” NTSB said.
The case is Sz Hua Huang et al v. Tesla Inc., The State of California, no. 19CV346663, filed in California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara
–Alan Ohnsman; Forbes Staff