Tesla driver has become the first person in the United States to be charged with vehicular manslaughter, when Autopilot was found to be engaged during a fatal car crash that killed two people.
According to the Associated Press, driver Kevin George Aziz Riad, aged 27, has pleaded not guilty to the charges by Los Angeles County prosecutors.
Riad is a limousine service driver, and is free on bail while the case is pending.
The crash took place on 29 December 2019, and came to light in January 2020 when it emerged the crash was being investigated by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as the Tesla Model S was using its partial driver assistance program, known as Autopilot.
The fatal accident took place in Gardena, a suburb in Los Angeles, and the NHTSA confirmed last week that Autopilot was in use in the Tesla at the time of the crash.
A black Model S left the 91 freeway (motorway) in Gardena and was moving at a high rate of speed when it ran a red light and crashed into a 2006 Honda Civic at an intersection.
Both occupants of the Honda Civic (Gilberto Alcazar Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez) died at the scene.
The man and woman in the Tesla were hospitalised, but they only suffered non-life threatening injuries.
No arrests were made at the time of the crash.
The Associated Press reported that Kevin George Aziz Riad appears to be the first person to be charged with a felony in the United States for a fatal crash involving a motorist who was using a partially automated driving system.
That said, the criminal charging documents apparently do not mention Autopilot.
Riad’s preliminary hearing is scheduled for 23 February.
And this is not the only legal action as a result of this crash.
The families of Lopez and Nieves-Lopez have sued both Tesla and Riad in separate lawsuits, AP reports.
The families allege negligence by Riad, and have accused Tesla of selling defective vehicles that can accelerate suddenly and that lack an effective automatic emergency braking system.
A joint trial is scheduled for mid-2023.
The criminal trial of Riad will be closely watched, as it could set a legal precedent of the misuse of Telsa’s Autopilot system.
Indeed, the filing of criminal charges in the crash may serve notice to other drivers who misuse systems such as Autopilot and who are involved in crashes.
It should be remembered that the criminal charges aren’t the first involving an automated driving system, but they are the first to involve a widely used driver technology.
In September 2020, an Uber backup safety driver was charged with negligent homicide, after an Uber self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona.
That fatal accident took place in March 2018, when Elaine Herzberg, 49, died from her injuries after she crossed the Arizona road late at night, right in front of the Uber self-driving car, a 2017 Volvo XC90.
Just before the crash, Herzberg had been walking with a bicycle across a poorly lit stretch of a multi-lane road at night.
The fatality in Tempe, Arizona, was thought to be the first death caused by an autonomous vehicle on public roads.
Tempe police said the Volvo XC90 SUV was in autonomous mode at the time of the crash, with a single human safety driver.
The NTSB investigators found that Uber had disabled a Volvo auto-braking system that could have reduced the speed of the car, and that the in car systems systems had actually spotted Herzberg (in the darkness) approximately 5.6 seconds before the collision.
Unfortunately, it classified her as a number of different objects, and failed to realise an impact was imminent.
Despite that, in March 2019 local prosecutors ruled that Uber was not criminally liable for the death of Herzberg.
But the car’s back-up safety driver Rafaela Vasquez was always at risk of facing criminal charges, as video from the cabin showed Vasquez taking her eyes off the road moments before the accident.
Indeed, Vasquez is alleged to have been watching a streamed episode of the television show “The Voice” on a phone seconds before the crash.
Vasquez only looked up a half-second before hitting Herzberg, and police called the incident “entirely avoidable”.
Vasquez’s trial has been delayed multiple times and is still pending.