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Driver Charged Over 2019 Fatal Crash Involving Tesla with AutoPilot Engaged

An autonomous-drive system
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Daniel Rufiange
The case in California is the first of its kind and could affect the use of autonomous-drive systems

Semi-autonomous driving systems are coming, in fact they’re here – but they’re not universally accepted. Some see them as the eighth wonder of the world and the way of the future, while others decry them as the worst invention the automotive world ever didn’t need.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between. With all new technologies, the most important elements are how they are used and the choices that human beings using them make.

When it comes to drive-assist systems and autonomous-drive technologies, a pertinent legal case has emerged in California. Prosecutors there have decided to charge a driver who was using the AutoPilot semi-autonomous driving system of their Tesla when it ran a light and crashed into a Honda Civic, killing both of that vehicle’s occupants on impact. The accident occurred in 2019 in Gardena, California. The charge? Vehicular manslaughter.

According to the Washington Post, the accused driver is the first in the United States to be charged with a felony over a fatal crash while using a semi-autonomous driving system. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed to the newspaper that the system was in use at the time of the collision. The defendant has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The families of the victims are suing both the driver of the car and the manufacturer that offers the technology.

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At stake in this case is not the validity of Tesla’s autonomous driving system in particular, but rather its use by the vehicle's operator. That is what the court will look into and what the accused driver will be tried for. The vehicle involved n the collision was a Model S and the system it was using the AutoPilot offered by the company.

The systems offered are not fully autonomous, and drivers using them are still legally responsible for the car. At the same time, the California charges come as Tesla's driver assistance system is receiving increasing attention. The NHTSA has opened an investigation into accidents involving the AutoPilot system.

Several Teslas have collided with parked emergency vehicles, a problem widespread enough to prompt a software update from the automaker. Similarly, the number of fatal collisions involving Tesla cars in which AutoPilot may have played a role continues to grow, prompting increased interest from authorities.

It’s worth noting here that while Tesla is taking heat for its semi-autonomous driving system, in part that’s simply because it’s out ahead of the competition in the field. Consider that if Honda, for example, had such an advanced system in its vehicles, we might be talking about accidents involving the company's models as well.

The California legal case will be watched with interest around the industry and beyond, of course. It could have a major impact on what happens next with self-driving technologies and how people will perceive and use the autonomous-drive systems available to them in the future.

Daniel Rufiange
Daniel Rufiange
Automotive expert
  • Over 17 years' experience as an automotive journalist
  • More than 75 test drives in the past year
  • Participation in over 250 new vehicle launches in the presence of the brand's technical specialists