A judge in Florida has ruled that a jury should determine if Tesla and Elon Musk made false claims about the capabilities of their Autopilot system, which led to a fatal crash. The crash occurred when a software engineer activated the system, removed his hands from the steering wheel, and collided with a truck just moments later.
Circuit Judge Reid Scott denied Tesla’s request to quickly dismiss the lawsuit brought by Kim Banner, who claims the company is responsible for her husband Jeremy Banner’s death in 2019. In a 23-page decision, Scott determined that Banner’s attorneys provided enough evidence for the case to continue to trial in the coming year. He also ruled that Banner can pursue punitive damages against the company, which could potentially amount to millions of dollars.
Scott stated last week that there is a contentious debate regarding whether Tesla’s Autopilot has created a foreseeable area of danger that presents a potential harm to others, referencing previous fatal accidents involving the technology. When activated, Autopilot is designed to steer and brake the vehicle on its own.
The judge’s decisions were supposed to be kept private, but they were accidentally published on the Palm Beach County court clerk’s website on Wednesday. They were removed shortly after The Associated Press accessed the ruling.
On Wednesday, Tesla’s lawyer Whitney Cruz chose not to provide a statement, and the company did not reply to an email. Four years ago, Musk got rid of Tesla’s media and public relations team.
Trey Lytal, the attorney for Banner, stated on Wednesday that Scott’s ruling demonstrates that Tesla’s actions were not simply careless, but deliberate and dangerous, resulting in the death of customers, including Jeremy Banner. He anticipates that Scott will soon make his decision public in its entirety.
Lytal expressed that the public has a right to be informed of these findings and it is expected to occur within the following weeks.
Scott, in rejecting Tesla’s motion, focused on the company’s marketing and Musk’s comments about Autopilot, and noted other deaths that have occurred during its use. The company says in court documents that it warns drivers that its cars are not fully self-driving, that they still must pay attention to the road and that they are ultimately responsible for steering and braking.
However, Scott acknowledged that Banner’s legal team had presented sufficient proof to allow the lawsuit to move forward. The lawyers for Banner have asserted that the use of the term “Autopilot” by Musk and Tesla insinuated that the vehicles were capable of driving themselves without the need for the driver’s complete focus. They also referenced several statements made by Musk several years prior to the accident involving Jeremy Banner, who was 50 at the time. In these statements, Musk claimed that Autopilot was already superior to human drivers and would soon be fully self-driving.
The lawyers also reference a promotional video from 2016 for Autopilot, which is still available on the company’s website. It opens with a declaration stating, “The individual in the driver’s seat is solely present for legal purposes. They are not actively involved in driving. The vehicle is operating autonomously.”
The Tesla car navigates through a town on curvy roads amidst traffic. It comes to a stop at traffic lights and stop signs, avoids collisions with other vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists, and adjusts its speed accordingly. It even parallel parks on its own. The camera captures the driver sitting in the seat without ever touching the steering wheel or pedals.
During the questioning by Banner’s lawyers, Tesla staff disclosed that the vehicle featured in the advertisement was equipped with exclusive mapping software that is not accessible to the general public. Furthermore, they admitted that despite this advantage, the car still had a subpar performance and even crashed into a fence during filming. According to the attorneys, the video had to be shot multiple times and underwent significant editing.
After examining the proof, Reid stated that he could not fathom how regular consumers would not believe that Tesla cars could drive on their own without using hands.
Jeremy Banner accomplished that.
In the early hours of March 1, 2019, he was driving to his job on a partially rural highway in Florida in his 2018 Tesla Model 3, which he had bought several months prior.
Banner was driving at a speed of approximately 70 miles per hour (110 kilometers per hour) when he activated Autopilot and removed his hands from the steering wheel. A tractor-trailer from a nearby farm entered his lane on the right side, but the Tesla did not detect it and neither Banner nor the car braked or changed direction. After ten seconds of Autopilot being engaged, the car collided with the trailer and the impact caused the hood to detach, resulting in Banner’s immediate death.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which conducted an investigation into the accident, determined that the truck driver was primarily responsible for entering traffic, but also found fault with Banner and Tesla.
According to the NTSB, a vigilant driver would have noticed the truck in advance and taken necessary measures to avoid it. The board recommended that Tesla’s Autopilot have additional precautions in place to prevent its use on highways with intersecting traffic. The car should also ensure that drivers using Autopilot stay actively involved by keeping their hands on the steering wheel.
According to the 2020 report, both the NTSB and researchers have discovered that drivers struggle with monitoring automation and do not excel at tasks that require passive attention.
The trucking company has agreed to a private resolution with Kim Banner and is no longer involved in the legal case.