Tesla driver involved in fatal Autopilot crash charged with homicide

For the first time in the United States, criminal charges have been brought against a Tesla driver involved in a fatal accident while the advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) Autopilot was engaged. Two criminal charges are being filed against this landlord by California prosecutors, The Verge reports on January 18, 2022.

A burnt red light
The accident occurred in Gardena, a municipality located in the suburbs of Los Angeles, on December 29, 2019 while the Autopilot was engaged. The driver was exiting a highway in his black Tesla Model S when he ran through a red light, crashing into a Honda Civic and killing two people. The man, a limousine service driver, faces two charges of manslaughter by a driver, according to the indictment filed in California Superior Court. He is currently out on bail while the case is pending.

The document with the criminal charges does not mention the Autopilot. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which dispatched a team to investigate the crash in 2019, confirmed the driver assist feature was active at the time of the crash. The agency plans to publish the findings of the investigation soon.

Tesla’s Autopilot system can perform lane changes on certain expressways, and control vehicle steering and braking functions. But Autopilot is a partially self-contained SAE Level 2 system. This means drivers need to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

The driver must be careful
“NHTSA reminds the public that no motor vehicle commercially available today can drive itself”said a spokesperson with The Verge. “Whether an SAE Level 2 automated driving system is engaged or not, every available vehicle requires the driver to be able to regain control at any time, and all laws hold the human driver responsible for the operation of their vehicles”. In France, the legislation on ADAS has recently changed since the driver can free himself from criminal liability when such a system operates under normal conditions of use. However, the driver must be able to regain control of the vehicle at any time.

Tesla is often criticized for having ambiguous communication about Autopilot’s capabilities and for its weak driver monitoring system. In May 2021, however, the manufacturer resigned itself to supplementing its surveillance system with an interior camera fixed to the rear view mirror to ensure the attention of drivers. But Tesla has always refused to add infrared eye tracking.

The American authorities are scrutinizing the manufacturer of electric vehicles very closely. During the summer of 2021, NHTSA opened an investigation into 11 accidents involving Tesla vehicles while Autopilot was on. On this occasion, the NHTSA wants to know how Tesla ensures that drivers keep their eyes on the road when Autopilot is activated and if there are any limits to this system.

Regularly, videos of Tesla drivers misusing Autopilot go around the web. Some have been caught sleeping in the passenger seat or in the back of their vehicle traveling at high speed on a crowded highway. A Canadian has been charged with reckless driving after being arrested for sleeping while traveling at a speed of 150 km/h.

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