Tesla settled a class action lawsuit this week with owners of its Model S sedans and Model X SUVs who alleged the company’s semi-autonomous driver assist system was “essentially unusable and demonstrably dangerous.” As part of the deal, Tesla has agreed to partially reimburse people who bought vehicles with Enhanced Autopilot over the long delays in rolling out its promised features.
The deal, which was filed in San Jose federal court late Thursday, still has to be approved by US District Judge Beth Labson Freeman. It was being closely watched by legal and auto analysts, as it was the only class action lawsuit against Tesla over its sophisticated and controversial Autopilot system.
“essentially unusable and demonstrably dangerous”
In a lengthy statement, a Tesla spokesperson said the agreement was the “right thing to do,” based on the delays in rolling out updates to Autopilot:
”Since rolling out our second generation of Autopilot hardware in October 2016, we have continued to provide software updates that have led to a major improvement in Autopilot functionality. This has included an extensive overhaul of the underlying architecture of our Autopilot software that enabled a step-change improvement in its machine learning capabilities. Our neural net, which expands as our customer fleet grows, is able to collect and analyze more high-quality data than ever before, which will enable us to roll out a series of new Autopilot features in 2018 and beyond. The customer response to our recent Autopilot updates has been overwhelmingly positive, so we know we’re on the right track.
That said, as time passed since we first unveiled Hardware 2, it eventually became clear that it was taking us longer to roll out these features than we would have liked or initially expected. We want to do right by those customers, so as part of a proposed settlement agreement for a class action lawsuit filed last year, we’ve agreed to compensate customers who purchased Autopilot on Hardware 2 vehicles who had to wait longer than we expected for these features. If the settlement is approved by the court, customers will receive different amounts depending on when they purchased and took delivery of their cars. Although the settlement is specific to customers in the US, if it is approved by the court, we’ve decided to compensate all customers globally in the same way. There’s no legal obligation to do so, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Back in April 2017, though, when the suit was first filed, Tesla sounded much more contentious, calling it “disingenuous,” “inaccurate,” and “sensationalist.” If the settlement is approved by the court, Tesla will pay between $20 and $280 to all Tesla owners in the US who bought or leased cars with Enhanced Autopilot between October 2016 and September 2017.
For months, Tesla fan forums have been filled with customers complaining about the delays in updating Autopilot. There was a growing sense that Tesla’s ability to deliver on Musk’s promise of “full self-driving” capabilities back in October 2016 were questionable.
updates were infrequent and scattered
Throughout 2016 and 2017, Autopilot 2.0’s over-the-air software updates were infrequent and scattered, Tesla owners say. For the first half of 2017, there were updates generally every three weeks, such as the ability to use Autosteer at speeds up to 90 mph on the highway and 35 mph on local roads. It has only been recently that many of the features from the previous version of Autopilot began appearing in OTA updates.
The company has come under increased scrutiny for Autopilot in recent months after three Tesla drivers died in crashes in which Autopilot was engaged. The most recent fatal crash in March is being investigated by safety regulators. Another recent crash in Utah, which resulted in two injuries, is also under federal investigation.
It has not been easy to determine exactly how much Autopilot improves the safety of drivers, or even how to measure that in the first place. The most common figure Tesla and Musk use when making claims about Autopilot’s safety is that it was “found by the US government to reduce crash rates by as much as 40%.” This statistic comes from the report that was filed at the conclusion of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s investigation into the 2016 death of Joshua Brown, who was using Autopilot when his Tesla Model S crashed into a tractor-trailer. But the veracity of the statistic has recently come under fire, and today, NHTSA distanced itself from the claim. Musk said in a recent earnings call that Tesla will begin to release quarterly safety updates about Autopilot.
Musk has been highly critical of the media coverage about the crash, saying journalists are unfairly focusing on Tesla crashes for sensationalist reasons and questioning why the numerous standard road deaths that occur every day are not covered as vigorously. Musk did, however, admit in a follow-up tweet that Autopilot “certainly needs to be better & we work to improve it every day.”