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Tesla's Autopilot trial challenges the company's defense strategy

In a newly emerged legal battle, an email from Tesla's former president, Jon McNeill, sheds light on the internal dynamics surrounding the company's Autopilot system. Six weeks prior to the first fatal U.S. accident involving Autopilot in 2016, McNeill praised the system's performance in an email to Tesla's automated-driving chief, Sterling Anderson, and CEO Elon Musk:

"I got so comfortable under Autopilot, that I ended up blowing by exits because I was immersed in emails or calls (I know, I know, not a recommended use)"

However, this email has now become a focal point in a California wrongful-death lawsuit, where plaintiffs' lawyers are questioning whether Tesla was aware that drivers might not maintain attention while using the system.


The lawsuit, set for trial in San Jose, revolves around a fatal crash in March 2018 and marks a significant challenge for Tesla's assertion of Autopilot's safety. Unlike previous cases where Tesla successfully argued that drivers had failed to heed instructions to remain attentive, this time, the plaintiffs' lawyers have obtained testimony suggesting that Tesla did not thoroughly assess drivers' ability to regain control if Autopilot steered towards an obstacle.


Tesla crash in California, March 2018 - credits: Reuters

Key revelations from depositions include Tesla's delayed implementation of a system monitoring drivers' attentiveness, introduced in 2021, despite considering it as early as 2018. The case raises questions about Tesla's understanding of driver behavior and its efforts to safeguard users, particularly in light of Autopilot-related accidents.


Tesla's assertion that drivers can quickly transition back to manual driving in case of Autopilot errors faces scrutiny in light of McNeill's email, which suggests a potential for driver complacency. Experts in autonomous-vehicle law anticipate this case to be a significant test of Tesla's safety claims, with implications for ongoing litigation against the company.


Amid mounting scrutiny, Tesla faces additional challenges, including a federal criminal probe into its claims regarding autonomous driving capabilities. Despite marketing features like Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, Tesla is yet to achieve full autonomy, raising concerns about overreliance on driver-assistance systems.


As legal battles unfold and safety concerns persist, the case highlights the evolving landscape of autonomous vehicle regulation and the critical need for companies like Tesla to prioritize user safety and accountability.

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