Tesla is in Hot Water Over Self-Driving Cars

When you about technologies of today which were once thought of as the realm of science fiction you think about 3-D printing, you think the levels we’ve reached with AI, and on that note–you think of self-driving cars.  From the silver screen to reality, the past couple years have seen enormous leaps forward in the technology behind autonomous vehicles.  That surge in technology, however, has been accompanied by a surge in lawsuits as states scramble to figure out laws to properly regulate how self-driving cars can be made, handled, and sold.  Uber has seen many a legal challenge-mostly due to their unwillingness to purchase permits-as they have rolled out self-driving cars. When Google was first testing their self-driving technology, they narrowly missed traffic tickets after a police pulled their test car over.  The reason?  The new car was only safe to drive at below 25 miles per hour so it was going 24 in a 35 zone-the officer didn’t end up giving the car a ticket.  Now, having just barely entered the market, it seems like it’s Tesla’s turn to potentially face some legal hot water over the technology.

Tesla unveiled its self-driving technology back in 2014.  However, it wasn’t until October of last year that cars with the feature were actually sold.  The feature has been dubbed Autopilot 2 and costs about $5,000 extra.   Just a few days ago, a class action lawsuit was initiated against Tesla.  The suit alleges that Tesla’s driverless technology is so unsafe as to violate consumer protection and unfair practices laws.  As the technology becomes more commonplace, lawsuits like these were nearly inevitable.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at the lawsuit against Tesla and the state of the law when it comes to driverless cars.

TeslaIs Autopilot Dangerous?

The lawsuit, brought in Federal Court in California’s Northern District, includes plaintiffs from Colorado, New Jersey, and Florida.  It includes allegations of violations of consumer protection laws of all three of those states.

The lawsuit accuses Tesla of many illegal practices.  It alleges that they are selling “vaporware,” a colloquial term for software that is advertised but non-existent.  The lawsuit alleges the Tesla advertised many upcoming safety and functionality features of their self-driving software that simply never materialized. They also say that salesmen at Tesla dealerships told plaintiffs that features that were upcoming were already part of the software.  Instead of the software they were promised, the lawsuit alleges that the using the Autopilot 2 software as is is dangerous-comparing the function to the quality of driving one would expect from a drunk driver.  They point to a specific review of the software which described the car serving across double yellow lines and nearly hopping the curb.  They point to other reviews which describe sudden hard stops at 50 MPH.  They describe plaintiffs as flabbergasted to learn that their cars couldn’t yet change lanes or exit the freeway without assistance, despite apparently being told this function was available in Tesla marketing materials.  They also describe individual experiences of plaintiffs where their cars behaved erratically while on autopilot mode.

Based on this, the lawsuit accuses Tesla of false and misleading advertising-something protected against in essentially every consumer protection statute; along with false advertising, and protections against defective products.  The statutes in the case follow the usual requirements for a claim of false advertising: knowingly making false representations about a product, with the capacity or tendency to deceive the consuming public and convince them to buy the product, with the intent to get people to buy that product.

The lawsuit also charges Tesla with violations of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act (requiring immediate action from manufacturers where a safety defect poses an unreasonable risk of death or injury in an accident) and fraud by concealment (the deliberate hiding or suppression of an important fact with the intent to deceive).

So basically, the lawsuit is saying that the marketing materials of Tesla’s Autopilot 2 feature drastically overstated what the software was actually capable of-both as initially delivered and by missing self-imposed deadlines to provide improved functionality-instead giving buyers a product so incomplete as to be dangerous to use.  If true, this is a classic case of consumer fraud.  However, as you might imagine, Tesla has a very different description of the situation.

First and foremost, Tesla says that the lawsuit misrepresents many of the facts as to both their advertising and the functionality of Autopilot 2.  In fact, they say that many of the features that are said to be unavailable in the lawsuit actually are available and that the features that the plaintiff’s thought would be there were clearly labeled as upcoming in marketing materials

With such diametrically opposed versions of the facts, it’s hard to say exactly what the chances are of a lawsuit like this.  As you might imagine, both side’s versions of the facts are likely to hand them a swift victory.  Should the plaintiffs win, their lawsuit asks for Tesla to purchase back their cars and provide unspecified amounts of damages-likely an amount determined by the individual consumer fraud statutes-for their advertising practices.  We’ll have to see how the facts shake out before making a prediction one way or another.  Tesla’s website does indeed have descriptions of many elements of Autopilot 2 as upcoming.  However, the question is what these particular clients were told and the particular marketing materials they were provided.  What’s more, while Tesla did miss a number of deadlines for improving Autopilot 2 to bring the product into parity with other self-driving vehicles, their marketing materials do seem to say that they cannot always hold to deadlines due to the extensive work and regulatory approval required for self-driving cars.  However, it’s still too early to say exactly who is going to come out on top here.

The Law on Driverless Cars

Part of the problem with lawsuits surrounding autonomous vehicles is that the law is still trying to catch up to technology somewhat.  That being said, there has been a boom in laws regulating self-driving cars.  Not so long ago, Michigan passed some of the most comprehensive-although quite lenient-laws on the issue seen to date.

This is far from the only set of laws regulating self-driving cars.  California, Arizona, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Nevada, Utah, North Dakota, Louisiana, Tennessee, Florida, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and Virginia all have laws or executive orders in place regulating the use of autonomous vehicles to some extent.  In September of 2016, even the federal government–through the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration–released an updated set of suggestions providing guidance for states in making laws.

Tesla, and other manufacturers of self-driving cars, are entering a market ahead of its time; but the laws are catching up.  More and more legislation is being introduced to figure out how to handle these kind of vehicles.  However, as this lawsuit suggests, we need to make sure that the technology is there and up to snuff before it reaches the public.  As it stands, both sides are so far apart that it’s hard to take much in the way of facts away from the pleadings and their response.  At a minimum, we can see that it is a technology in progress and-like any technology in process-we have to be careful how we implement it to ensure the safety of the public.

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