While leaders in the auto industry are rightfully concerned about the coronavirus’s effects on their industry, the outcome of a recent lawsuit filed against Tesla may have an even more lasting impact by way of litigation involving autonomous vehicles.
In April, the family of a pedestrian who was struck and killed by a Tesla filed a case involving what they described as the first “Tesla Autopilot-related death involving a pedestrian.”
The plaintiffs claim that the accident revealed a “patent defect” in Tesla’s automated driving technology, which the plaintiffs describe as “non-market-ready.” The lawsuit seeks to hold Tesla strictly liable for a defective design, failing to warn of the alleged defects of its Autopilot technology and driver assistance features, and negligence.
While the lawsuit focuses on Tesla, the potential ramifications of the lawsuit are bound to affect more than just Tesla. Indeed, the plaintiffs ended the first paragraph of their lawsuit by warning the court that “not holding developers, like Tesla, who are at the helm of developing such cutting-edge technologies such as Tesla’s Autopilot system, it is inevitable that without action, the first Tesla Autopilot-related death involving a pedestrian certainly will not be the last.”
The world’s largest auto manufacturers and upstart competitors in the tech industry are in a race to produce real-world autonomous vehicles—and trying to navigate the regulatory landscape and skepticism in the process.
But the race has not come without risks. Tesla is also facing other lawsuits from drivers and their families who are suing the automaker for accidents that allegedly arose from Tesla’s autopilot feature. And the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently released a report in February stating that Tesla’s autopilot system was partially at fault for a deadly crash in 2018 when a man was playing a video game while driving with Tesla’s autopilot engaged. The NTSB blamed the crash on the distraction of the video game as well as the driver’s “over-reliance” on Tesla’s self-driving system.
In sum, the legal landscape for litigation involving autonomous vehicles is being crafted now. While the litigation to date has generally dealt with minor accidents or accidents where there is a strong case to be made for contributory negligence, this latest lawsuit will set the landscape and precedent for handling mass torts involving pedestrians injured by autonomous vehicles.