Tesla settles over fatal Autopilot crash

Tesla has reached a confidential agreement with the family of an Apple engineer who died in a 2018 crash while driving in Autopilot mode.

The carmaker said it had reached an agreement on the eve of the trial, ending a five-year legal battle over a car crash that killed Walter Huang after his car veered off the highway near San Francisco.

Tesla did not disclose the terms of an agreement announced in a California Superior Court filing on Monday (April 8th), asking the judge to seal the figure listed in the document from the public eye.

The company’s attorneys said they wanted to seal the exact amount of the settlement because “other potential claimants (or the plaintiffs’ bar) may perceive the settlement amount as evidence of Tesla’s potential liability for losses, which may have a chilling effect on settlement opportunity in subsequent cases,” according to CNBC.

The settlement was reached as jury selection for the trial was just about to begin and will also allow Tesla to avoid airing evidence and testimonies in a high-profile case that would have put its Autopilot and a more advanced Full Self-Driving software under increased scrutiny.

Tesla boss Elon Musk said in a post on X in 2022 that the company “will never seek victory in a just case against us, even if we will probably win” and that “we will never surrender/settle an unjust case against us, even if we will probably lose.”

The wrongful death case filed by Huang’s family alleged that Tesla’s Autopilot system steered his 2017 Model X into a highway barrier. The family’s lawyers also raised questions about whether Tesla understood that drivers likely wouldn’t or couldn’t use the system as directed and what steps the automaker took to protect them.

Tesla contended that Huang misused the system because he was playing a video game just before the accident and failed to to take over driving because he was not paying attention.

A 2020 investigation by the National Transport and Safety Board (NSTB) found that Huang was playing a video game on his smartphone at the time of a crash and made no attempts to stop the car as it sped towards the barrier on US Highway 101.

Tesla won two previous California trials involving Autopilot by arguing that the drivers had ignored its instructions to maintain attention while using the system.

Huang family’s lawyers, however, had testimony from Tesla witnesses suggesting the company never studied before the crash how quickly and effectively drivers could take control if Autopilot accidentally steered towards an obstacle.

According to Tesla’s website, its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features “are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.”

“While these features are designed to become more capable over time, the currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous,” it says.

Critics argue that social media and marketing messages from Tesla do not make that clear. Just last week, Musk announced the company planned to unveil a self-driving robotaxi in August.

Tesla faces a series of other lawsuits over crashes involving the alleged use of its self-driving technology. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has also launched more than 40 investigations into accidents involving Tesla’s automated-driving systems.

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