Because self-driving technology is so new, there are few precedents regarding liability when an autonomous vehicle crashes. Prosecutors in California are taking action after a fatal collision, however, and have made a landmark move by filing vehicular manslaughter charges, which may pave the way for handling similar scenarios in the future.
On Dec. 29, 2019, Kevin Riad was driving a Tesla Model S when the vehicle sped off the freeway and ran a red light before colliding with a Honda Civic at an intersection in a Los Angeles suburb. The two occupants of the Civic, Gilberto Lopez and Maria Nieves-Lopez, were pronounced dead at the scene. Riad and his passenger were transported to the hospital, where they were treated for injuries.
In January of 2022, investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed that the Model S had Autopilot engaged at the time of the crash. Since the technology does not make vehicles wholly autonomous, however, motorists who activate the feature are still expected to remain attentive while behind the wheel.
Los Angeles County prosecutors believe Riad failed to take reasonable measures to prevent the fatal accident. Consequently, they charged him with two counts of vehicular manslaughter for the deaths of Lopez and Nieves-Lopez.
While Riad is not the first person to face criminal charges regarding the alleged misuse of an automated driving system, he is the first to be prosecuted over a widely available technology. In the United States alone, experts estimate that 765,000 Tesla vehicles are equipped with the kinds of automated features that Riad was employing when his Model S crashed into the Civic.
Tesla has stated that neither their “Autopilot” nor more sophisticated “Full Self-Driving” mode allows motorists to disengage. They must remain alert at all times when using such features, so they can react if any hazards arise. It’s worth noting that there are already hundreds of motorists who own Tesla vehicles and rely on the Full Self-Driving technology when using public roads across the United States.
Whether Tesla is also deemed criminally, civilly, or morally responsible for the deaths of Lopez and Nieves-Lopez remains to be seen.
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