Tesla Driver Charged with Vehicular Manslaughter

California prosecutors have filed two counts of vehicular manslaughter against the driver of a Tesla on Autopilot. The driver ran a red light, slammed into another car, and killed two people in 2019.

The defendant appears to be the first person charged with a felony in the United States for a fatal crash involving a motorist using a partially automated driving system.

Not the First

The criminal charges aren’t the first involving an automated driving system. They are, however, the first to involve a widely-used driver technology. Authorities in Arizona filed a charge of negligent homicide in 2020 against a driver Uber had hired to take part in the testing of a fully autonomous vehicle on public roads. The Uber vehicle, an SUV with the human backup driver on board, struck and killed a pedestrian.

Criminal charging documents do not mention Tesla Autopilot. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sent investigators to the crash, confirmed that Autopilot was in use in the Tesla at the time of the crash.

Autopilot Not a Replacement for Human Drivers

Jonathan Handel, a lecturer in law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and an expert in autonomous vehicles, said the case would hopefully show that semi-autonomous systems, like Autopilot, are not a replacement for human drivers.

You would think that this statement does not need to be made. Still, the NHTSA has issued a statement saying no vehicle on sale can drive itself. Whether or not a car is using a partially automated driving system, “every vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times. The NHTSA added that all state laws hold human drivers responsible for the operation of their vehicles. Though automated systems can help drivers avoid crashes, the technology must be used responsibly.”

Over the past few years, we have been writing and preaching about terms such as Autopilot and Hands-Free Driving. These are links to a podcast and article covering the “Human Driver.”

Read More – The Dynamic and Human Driving Tasks

Podcast – https://securitydriver.com/12/198-tires-and-tire-pressures-dynamic-and-human-driving-tasks/

This is an excerpt from the article:

“In all our 48 years in the profession, we would have never thought or considered that the automotive engineering community would be required to define how humans and computers interact while driving a vehicle.  A human interacting with the vehicle computers, specifically the ADAS, is called the human driving task.”

We suggest that all professional security drivers and secure transportation providers read the section in the article titled the Human Driving and Dynamic Driving tasks in relation to autonomous driving

This Won’t be the Last Time

What you can take away from all this is that if you are using Hands-Free Driving or Autopilot and are involved in a fatal collision, saying, “The car did it, not me.” It could get you sued or worse.

This may be the first time felony charges have been brought after a fatal crash involving Autopilot or other self-driving technology, but we are confident it won’t be the last. 

All you need to do is watch TV commercials selling the idea that no hands on the wheel are a benefit. These ads showing drivers removing their hands from the steering wheel are irresponsible.  As a recent article pointed out, “Unless and until self-driving systems become as safe as elevators, a word to the wise is: drive as if your life depends on it. Because your life, and that of other drivers on the road with you, is in your hands, not the tender ministrations of some machine. Guide yourselves accordingly.”