In what looked to be the first trial involving a crash utilizing the partially automated driving software, an Autopilot feature failure, a California state court jury on Friday delivered Tesla Inc. a resounding victory.
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, has hailed the company’s advanced “Full Self-Driving (FSD)” system as essential to its future, but it has attracted regulatory and legal scrutiny. Tesla has been testing and deploying both systems.
Justine Hsu of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit in 2020, claiming that when her Tesla Model S veered into a curb while in Autopilot, the airbag was deployed “so violently that it fractured Plaintiff’s jaw, knocked out teeth, and caused nerve damage to Plaintiff’s face.”
She demanded more than $3 million in damages and claimed that the Autopilot and the airbag had been designed improperly.
In a court filing, Tesla claimed that Hsu employed Autopilot on city streets despite a user manual warning against doing so. Tesla denied responsibility for the collision.
On Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court, the jury gave Hsu no damages. Additionally, it was determined that neither the airbag nor Tesla had purposefully omitted information.
Jurors told Reuters that after the verdict that the partially automated driving software was not a self-piloting system and that the cause of the accident was driver distraction. On Friday, Tesla stock increased 1.3% to settle at $165.08.
When the jury’s verdict was announced outside the courtroom, Hsu sobbed bitterly. Donald Slavik, one of her attorneys, expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome. Michael Carey, a counsel for Tesla, declined to comment.
Ed Walters, a Georgetown Law professor who teaches a course on autonomous vehicles, referred to the decision as a “huge win” for Tesla.
“This case should serve as a wakeup call to Tesla owners: they can’t over-rely on Autopilot, and they really need to be ready to take control and Tesla is not a self-driving system,” the author stated.
Although Tesla refers to its driver-assist features as Autopilot or Full Self-Driving, the automaker maintains that they do not render vehicles autonomous and advises drivers to be “prepared to take over at any moment.” In 2015, the business unveiled Autopilot, and in 2016, news of the country’s first deadly accident broke. That matter was never tried in court.
Three Tesla engineers testified during the three weeks that the Hsu trial took place in Los Angeles Superior Court. The business has been preparing for a flurry of additional experiments with the partially automated driving system, which Musk has argued is safer than human drivers.
Who is to blame for an accident while a car is in driver-assist Autopilot mode—the human driver, the machine, or both?—was the central issue in Autopilot lawsuits.
“Jury perspectives can differ when fatalities are involved and they are on highways,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
While Tesla “won this battle, they may end up losing the war,” he said, noting that despite Elon Musk’s repeated assurances over the years, people are now aware that Tesla’s technology is “far from becoming fully autonomous.”
Although the verdict of the trial is not conclusive in other cases, experts said they view it as a barometer to help Tesla and other plaintiffs’ attorneys hone their tactics.
Early cases “give an indication of how later cases are likely to go,” according to Cassandra Burke Robertson, a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law who has examined self-driving car liability.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into the safety of the technology, while the US Justice Department is looking into Tesla’s boasts about its ability to self-drive.