Tesla settles over fatal Autopilot crash on eve of trial

A Tesla Model X burns after crashing on US Highway 101 in Mountain View, California, US on March 23, 2018. — Handout via Reuters

Tesla Inc reached a settlement on the eve of its highest-profile trial yet over a crash blamed on Autopilot, the driver-assistance system Elon Musk has billed as crucial to his pursuit of self-driving cars, according to court filings.

Terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed in filings made public April 8 in state court in San Jose, California.

The trial that was set to kick off this week centered on Walter Huang, a 38-year-old Apple Inc engineer who was killed on the way to work in 2018 when his Model X veered off the highway and slammed into a roadside barrier at about 71 miles (114 kilometers) per hour. A federal safety agency’s investigation of the accident found that Huang was probably distracted with a video game app on his phone, while also pointing to “limitations” with the Autopilot system.

The electric-vehicle maker prevailed in two previous trials in California after juries found the accidents, one fatal and one not, were due to driver error rather than the company’s technology. Each of the trials – and more that are scheduled in coming months in California and Florida – clash with Musk’s mantra that Teslas are the safest cars ever made.

Musk has touted fully autonomous driving for 10 years as the way of the future – and has frequently predicted his engineers were on the cusp of mastering the technology. That has triggered false advertising claims against Tesla by consumers as well as civil and criminal government investigations.

Tesla has also faced increasing regulatory scrutiny over the safety of Autopilot and the company’s more sophisticated system, Full Self-Driving, including multiple investigations into alleged defects. In December, Tesla rolled out over-the-air software updates for more than two million vehicles after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Autopilot doesn’t do enough to guard against misuse.

Huang’s widow and children claimed in their lawsuit that he believed his 2017 Model X “was safer than a human-operated vehicle”, but that it failed to perform as it should have. The family alleged that the Autopilot software became confused and caused the car to swerve out of its lane because it had not been trained to detect barriers in areas where one highway merges with another.

Lawyers for the Huangs also were expected at the trial to make a bigger point that Musk, as the face of Tesla, has for years aggressively promoted Autopilot to the public as better than human drivers despite its limitations. They claimed the marketing of the driving-assistance features set “reasonable expectations” among consumers – even if they didn’t understand the technology – that the system would not affirmatively steer their cars into barriers or fail to deploy emergency braking.

Tesla argued the sole cause of the crash was Huang’s “highly extraordinary misuse of his vehicle and its Autopilot features” so that he could play a video game while driving.

The company contended that Huang knew Autopilot didn’t make his Model X autonomous, but choose during morning rush hour traffic to play Sega’s Total War: Three Kingdoms. During the 19 minutes he was driving in Autopilot mode before he crashed, Huang’s hands were not detected on the steering wheel 34% of the time, including the final six seconds, Tesla has said in court filings.

Tesla’s website describes Autopilot as “an advanced driver assistance system that enhances safety and convenience behind the wheel”. The company says that Autopilot enables its vehicles to steer, accelerate and brake automatically, but that the system’s features require “active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous”.

Tesla and a spokesperson for the Huang family’s lawyers didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. – Bloomberg

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