California prosecutors filed two felony charges against the owner of Tesla Model S for a deadly crash in 2019 that involved the vehicle’s Autopilot system, marking the first time that a Tesla owner has been criminally charged in the US in a case involving the automaker’s advanced driver assist system. The charges were first reported by the AP.
According to the LA County District Attorney, the incident took place in Gardena, a suburb of LA, on December 29, 2019. Kevin George Aziz Riad, 27, was exiting a highway in his black Model S when he ran through a red light, slamming into a Honda Civic and killing two people.
Riad, a limousine service driver, will now face two charges of vehicular manslaughter, according to charges filed with the California Superior Court. He is currently free on bail while the case is pending, according to the AP.
Autopilot, which can control steering and braking functions as well as perform automatic lane changes while on certain highways, has come under increased scrutiny from federal regulators. Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into over a dozen incidents involving Tesla vehicles using Autopilot that have crashed into stationary emergency vehicles. Autopilot has contributed to a number of fatal crashes in the past, and the families of deceased drivers have sued Tesla for wrongful death.
Tesla warns that drivers need to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel at all times, though the automaker has declined to include a more robust driver-monitoring system (like infrared eye tracking, for example) to ensure its customers are following safety protocols. Autopilot is considered a Level 2 “partially automated” system by the Society of Automotive Engineers’ standards, which requires that drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
Some Tesla drivers have been caught misusing Autopilot, and some have even publicized the results themselves. Drivers have been found sleeping in the passenger seat or backseat of their vehicles while speeding down a crowded highway. A Canadian man was charged with reckless driving after being pulled over for sleeping while traveling at speeds of 93mph.
The criminal charges document does not mention Autopilot. But NHTSA, which dispatched a team to investigate the crash in 2019, confirmed that the driver assist feature was active at the time of the incident. The agency plans on publishing its findings from the investigation soon.
“NHTSA reminds the public that no commercially available motor vehicle today can drive itself,” a spokesperson said. “Whether a L2 automated driving system is engaged or not, every available vehicle requires the human driver to be in control at all times, and all State laws hold the human driver responsible for the operation of their vehicles.”