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Tesla driver in California first to be charged with manslaughter over fatal Autopilot crash

The fatal crash occurred in Los Angeles County in October 2019.

tesla model 3 steering wheel
Image: Unsplash

A Tesla Autopilot crash happened in California’s Los Angeles County back in 2019, killing two people in another vehicle. Now, law enforcement has charged the Tesla driver with two counts of vehicular manslaughter.

Initially reported by The Associated Press, this appears to be the first instance where a driver was charged with a felony for a crash involving the popular automated driving system in the United States.

The publication also referenced a case out of Arizona in 2020 where a driver was testing an autonomous Uber vehicle in 2018 that struck and killed a pedestrian. But this is likely the first instance involving a widely-used automated driver system.

The vehicular manslaughter charges that stemmed from the Los Angeles County crash were filed in October, but they just came to light in the last week.

A Tesla driver was heading down a freeway when the vehicle suddenly veered off the freeway and ran a red light. The Tesla then hit a Honda Civic with Gilberto Alcazar Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez inside. Both died at the scene.

Tesla’s Autopilot has been involved in other fatal crashes

tesla car visualizing full-self driving autopilot
Visualization of Tesla’s sensors (Image: Tesla)

This isn’t the first time that Teslas have been involved in fatal accidents. One person died back in 2018 when their Tesla swerved into a concrete barrier on a busy highway. Another fatal crash happened in 2016 when a Tesla failed to brake for a tractor-trailer.

Tesla has continued to warn that its Autopilot features are not fully self-driving and still require a driver’s full attention. What I tend to question is how often Autopilot acts in a way that doesn’t make sense, causing drivers to have to react to things they normally wouldn’t.

When Autopilot does things automatically, like slow down or speed up, it can likely be pretty unexpected. If a driver isn’t expecting the Autopilot to do a certain action, the reaction could be panicked. And that’s never a good thing when you’re driving a 3,000-pound death machine.

Whether it’s Autopilot making mistakes or just making drivers so comfortable that they stop paying attention, this is a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided. Tesla likely works very hard to make sure its Autopilot feature is as safe as possible. But we still have to make sure that we are constantly paying attention when we’re behind the wheel.

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