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The felony charges are the first in a fatal accident involving an autopilot | Arizona News


DETROIT (AP) — California prosecutors have filed two counts of vehicular manslaughter against the driver of a Tesla on Autopilot who ran a red light, rammed another car and killed two people in 2019.

The defendant appears to be the first person to be charged with a felony in the United States for a fatal accident involving a motorist who was using a partially automated driving system. Los Angeles County prosecutors filed the charges in October, but they weren’t revealed until last week.

The driver, Kevin George Aziz Riad, 27, pleaded not guilty. Riad, a limousine service driver, is free on bail while the case is pending.

Misuse of the autopilot, which can control steering, speed and braking, has occurred numerous times and is being investigated by two federal agencies. The filing of charges in the California crash could mean drivers who use systems like Autopilot that they can’t rely on them to control vehicles.

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The criminal charges are not the first involving an automated driving system, but they are the first to involve widely used driving technology. Authorities in Arizona have filed a 2020 negligent homicide lawsuit against a driver Uber hired to help test a fully autonomous vehicle on public roads. The Uber vehicle, an SUV with the human rescue driver on board, struck and killed a pedestrian.

In contrast, Autopilot and other driver assistance systems are widely used on roads around the world. An estimated 765,000 Tesla vehicles are equipped with it in the United States alone.

In the Tesla crash, police say a Model S was traveling at high speed when it left a freeway and ran a red light in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena and hit a Honda Civic at a intersection on December 29, 2019. Two people who were in the Civic, Gilberto Alcazar Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez died at the scene. Riad and a woman in the Tesla were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

The criminal indictment documents do not mention the autopilot. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sent investigators into the crash, confirmed last week that Autopilot was being used in the Tesla at the time of the accident.

Riad’s defense attorney did not respond to requests for comment last week, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office declined to discuss the case. Riad’s preliminary hearing is scheduled for February 23.

NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board have examined the widespread misuse of Autopilot by drivers, whose overconfidence and inattention have been blamed for multiple crashes, including fatal crashes. In an incident report, the NTSB called its misuse “complacency in automation.”

The agency said that in a 2018 crash in Culver City, Calif., in which a Tesla struck a fire truck, the design of the Autopilot system “allowed the driver to disengage from the task driving”. No one was injured in this accident.

Last May, a California man was arrested after officers noticed his Tesla driving down a highway with the man in the back seat and no one behind the wheel.

Teslas that used Autopilot have also hit a freeway barrier or tractor-trailers crossing roads. NHTSA has sent investigation teams into 26 crashes involving the Autopilot since 2016, resulting in at least 11 fatalities.

Messages were left seeking comment from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department. Since Autopilot crashes began, Tesla has updated the software to try to prevent drivers from abusing it. He also tried to improve the autopilot’s ability to detect emergency vehicles.

The company said Autopilot and a more sophisticated “full self-driving” system cannot drive themselves and drivers must pay attention and be ready to react at all times. “Full Self-Driving” is tested by hundreds of Tesla owners on public roads in the United States

Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies automated vehicles, said this was the first U.S. case he knew of in which serious criminal charges had been filed in a fatal accident involving a partially automated driver assistance system. Tesla, he said, could be “criminally, civilly or morally culpable” if found to have put dangerous technology on the road.

Donald Slavik, a Colorado attorney who has consulted on automotive technology lawsuits, including many against Tesla, said he was also unaware of previous felony charges filed against an American driver who used a partially automated driving technology involved in a fatal accident.

The families of Lopez and Nieves-Lopez sued Tesla and Riad in separate lawsuits. They alleged Riad’s negligence and accused Tesla of selling faulty vehicles that can accelerate suddenly and lack an effective automatic emergency braking system. A joint trial is scheduled for mid-2023.

Lopez’s family, in court documents, allege the car “suddenly and unintentionally accelerated to an excessive, dangerous and uncontrollable speed.” Nieves-Lopez’s family further claim that Riad was a dangerous driver, with multiple moving violations on his record, and could not handle the high-performance Tesla.

Separately, NHTSA is investigating a dozen crashes in which a Tesla on Autopilot struck several parked emergency vehicles. In the crashes under investigation, at least 17 people were injured and one person was killed.

Asked about the manslaughter charges against Riad, the agency released a statement saying there is no vehicle for sale that can drive itself. And whether or not a car uses a partially automated system, the agency said, “every vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times.”

NHTSA added that all state laws hold human drivers responsible for driving their vehicles. Although automated systems can help drivers avoid crashes, the agency said, technology must be used responsibly.

Rafaela Vasquez, the driver of the Uber self-driving test vehicle, was charged in 2020 with negligent homicide after the SUV fatally struck a pedestrian in suburban Phoenix in 2018. Vasquez pleaded not guilty. Arizona prosecutors declined to press charges against Uber.

Dazio reported from Los Angeles. AP News researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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