Tesla will play a major role in a manslaughter trial this week over a fatal crash caused by a vehicle operating on autopilot, in what could be a defining case for the self-driving car industry.
At the trial’s heart is the question of who is legally responsible for a vehicle that can drive – or partially drive – itself.
Kevin George Aziz Riad is on trial for his role in a 2019 crash. Police say Riad exited a freeway in southern California in a Tesla Model S, ran a red light and crashed into a Honda Civic, killing Gilberto Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez. Tesla’s autopilot system, which can control speed, braking and steering, was engaged at the time of the crash that killed the couple, who were on their first date.
Tesla does not face charges in the case, but trial could shape public perceptions of the company and act as a test case for whether the technology has advanced faster than legal standards, experts say.
“Who’s at fault, man or machine?” Edward Walters, an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University law school who specializes in the law governing self-driving cars. “The state will have a hard time proving the guilt of the human driver because some parts of the task are being handled by Tesla.”
Riad’s lawyer has said that his client should not have been charged with a crime while prosecutors have argued Riad’s speeding and failure to brake were reckless.
The trial comes as the electric carmaker faces growing scrutiny and criticism that its autopilot has made drivers inattentive and contributed to accidents and deaths. Elon Musk, the company cofounder, has said that Tesla is significantly more safe when used with its autopilot system, and has touted it as a step to fully autonomous driving.
In September, Musk said he believed the company had a “moral obligation” to roll out what he describes as “full self-driving” software, even if it was not perfect and Tesla faced lawsuits, because doing so could save lives.
But Tesla’s system has faced ongoing scrutiny and has been implicated in numerous collisions, some of them fatal. US federal regulators are currently investigating more than a dozen Tesla crashes into parked first responder vehicles over a period of four years, resulting in multiple injuries and one death.
The US justice department is investigating whether Tesla itself should face criminal charges over its self-driving claims, Reuters reported, which experts have said could pose a challenge to prosecutors in the California trial.
“The DoJ probe helps [Riad] because his claim is going to be ‘I relied on their advertising. Therefore, I was not aware of the risk there,’” said Robert Blecker, a criminal law professor at New York Law School.
In addition to the criminal trial related to the crash, the family of Gilberto Lopez is suing Tesla in a trial scheduled for July.
“I can’t say that the driver was not at fault, but the Tesla system, autopilot and Tesla spokespeople encourage drivers to be less attentive,” Donald Slavik, an attorney whose firm is representing Lopez’s family in a lawsuit against Tesla, told Reuters.
Tesla understood the risks of its system but failed to manage those, Slavik said. “Tesla knows people are going to use autopilot and use it in dangerous situations,” he said.
The ongoing legal and regulatory scrutiny of Tesla could shape perception of the company, which poses a risk as it looks to defend itself in coming lawsuits, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, who is also an adviser on new transportation technology.
“The narrative of Tesla potentially shifts from this innovative tech company doing cool things to this company just mired in legal trouble. That is the risk, and narrative is very important in civil litigation because both sides tell a jury a story,” he said.