Nov 1 (Reuters) – A manslaughter trial to begin in Los Angeles over a fatal crash involving a Tesla ( TSLA.O ) car operating on Autopilot represents the first-of-its-kind test of the legal liability of a human driver in a partially self-driving car, legal experts say.
The trial, set to begin Nov. 15, comes as civil cases over Tesla’s Autopilot accidents go to trial next year, adding to scrutiny of the system Tesla co-founder Elon Musk has touted as a step toward fully autonomous driving.
Critics say Tesla’s claims and Autopilot have contributed to accidents — and deaths — by making drivers inattentive.
The US Justice Department is investigating whether Tesla itself should face criminal charges over its autonomous driving claims, Reuters reported.
The trial in Los Angeles could affect the public’s perception of Tesla — and a future jury — and could be a test case for whether technology has advanced faster than legal standards, legal experts say.
“Who is to blame, man or machine?” Edward Walters, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University School of Law who specializes in the law governing self-driving cars. “The state will have a hard time proving the fault of the human driver because some parts of the task are handled by Tesla.”
Just after midnight on Dec. 29, 2019, Kevin George Aziz Riad, now 28, drove a Tesla Model S off a freeway in Gardena, California, ran a red light and crashed into a Honda Civic, police said. The driver and passenger in the Civic, Gilberto Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez, died at the scene. They were on a first date, relatives told the Orange County Register.
The autopilot system, which can control speed, braking and steering, was on at the time of the accident.
Tesla is not facing charges in the case, and legal experts say the bar for criminal proceedings against the company is high.
Tesla did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment. Tesla says on its website that its assistance systems “require active supervision of the driver and do not make the vehicle autonomous.”
Gilbert Lopez’s family is suing Tesla with a trial scheduled for July.
“I can’t say the driver was not at fault, but Tesla’s system, Autopilot and Tesla’s spokespeople encourage drivers to be less attentive,” said Donald Slavik, an attorney whose firm is representing Lopez’s family in the lawsuit against Tesla. Reuters.
Slavik said Tesla understood the risks of its system but failed to manage them. “Tesla knows that people will use Autopilot and use it in dangerous situations,” he said.
Musk said in September that he believed Tesla had a “moral obligation” to implement what he calls “Full Self Driving” software, even though it wasn’t perfect and Tesla was being sued because it could save lives.
Prosecutors said Riad’s speeding and brake failure were reckless. His lawyer, Arthur Barens, said in May that Riad should not be charged with a crime. Both declined to comment further.
Robert Blecker, a criminal law professor at New York Law School, said the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation into Tesla’s claims could make it more difficult for California prosecutors in court.
“The DOJ probe is helping him because his claim will be ‘I relied on their advertising. That’s why I wasn’t aware of the risk there,'” Blecker said.
Tesla’s legal and regulatory scrutiny could affect the company’s perception of risk as it looks set to defend itself in upcoming lawsuits, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who is also an adviser on new transportation technologies. .
“The Tesla story potentially shifts from this innovative technology company that’s doing great things to this company that’s just mired in legal trouble. That’s the risk, and the story is very important in civil litigation because both sides are telling a story to the jury,” he said .
Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin in San Francisco; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Lisa Shumaker
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.