Tesla settles Autopilot wrongful death suit, avoiding court trial

Tesla settles Autopilot wrongful death suit, avoiding court trial

Enlarge / A photograph from the NTSB report into the crash.


Yesterday, trial was due to begin in the case of Huang v. Tesla, a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a man killed in his Tesla Model X in 2018. But the case will now not be heard by a judge—Tesla has settled with the family for an undisclosed sum.

Walter Huang was driving to work in his Model X on March 23, 2018, when his car drove headlong into a concrete divider at an exit on US Highway 101. Tesla’s partially automated driving system, Autopilot, was active at the time, and Huang trusted it enough to play video games on his phone, despite having noticed that the car got confused at that particular intersection more than once.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated Huang’s death and published its findings in 2020. The NTSB found plenty of parties to blame. Tesla’s misleading marketing of Autopilot, such as video interviews where the Tesla CEO operated the system without keeping his hands or eyes on the road, and a staged self-driving demonstration contributed to Huang’s mistaken trust in Autopilot.

The system’s lax operational design domain was also a factor. Tesla was using industry-standard hardware at the time but pushing its envelope to the extent that Tesla’s technology supplier, Mobileye, ended their commercial relationship.

The NTSB pointed a finger at California’s highway agency, CalTrans, as well. Huang’s life may well have been saved had CalTrans replaced a damaged crash attenuator that was meant to protect vehicles from the concrete highway gore.

The NTSB report had a number of recommendations for other government agencies that could prevent future crashes like this one. Among them, it asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do its job, including evaluating new technologies being deployed by automakers like Tesla to see if they’re actually as safe as the companies claim, and to evaluate Tesla’s UI, which it found fault with in this case as well as the 2016 death of Joshua Brown.

The NTSB even called out the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, asking it to promulgate better employer policies on using cellphones while driving. Huang worked at Apple and was playing games on a work-issued iPhone during his commutes.

Would Tesla have lost?

Huang v. Tesla was to be Autopilot’s third lawsuit in California in less than a year. Last April, a jury cleared Tesla for responsibility for a crash that left a driver with multiple injuries to her face, hands, and legs after the car swerved and crashed into a median before she could react. In that case, the fact that the airbags deployed meant that the car performed safely, the jury said.

Then in October, Tesla had another big win when a different California jury cleared the company of responsibility for a 2019 crash in which a Model 3 veered off a highway and then collided with a tree, killing the driver and seriously injuring his wife and son. Tesla argued that the driver in that case had been drinking alcohol, an argument a majority of the jury found compelling.

That makes it notable that Tesla has settled this case; between the Apple-supplied phone logs that showed Huang’s habit of playing video games on his commute and the fact he continued to use the system despite several previous near-misses, a win for the plaintiffs was far from sure, particularly since none of the NTSB report’s recommendations could have been shown to the jury.

And in 2022, Musk, while announcing a “hardcore litigation department” at Tesla, told his social media followers that “we will never surrender/settle an unjust case against us, even if we will probably lose,” before promising potential hires that “there will be blood.”

We are unlikely ever to know the terms of Tesla’s settlement with Huang’s family. The company asked the court to seal the terms to prevent others from perceiving “the settlement amount as evidence of Tesla’s potential liability for losses, which may have a chilling effect on settlement opportunity in subsequent cases.”

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