California Driver Faces Felony Manslaughter Charges For Fatal Tesla Autopilot Crash: News

This is the first time the driver in one of these accidents is facing felony charges

2021 Tesla Model S
A Tesla Model S similar to what was involved in a 2019 crash while using Autopilot. (Image: Tesla)

The NHTSA is investigating several crashes involving Tesla’s Autopilot system.

California prosecutors have stepped onto new ground, however, by filing two counts of vehicular manslaughter against the owner of a Tesla Model S for a fatal 2019 accident.

As KTLA reports, LA police say 27-year-old Kevin George Aziz Riad was traveling at high speed at the time of the crash. He exited a freeway in Gardena, California, ran a red light and smashed into a Honda Civic. Both the Civic’s occupants, Gilberto Alcazar Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez, died from their injuries at the scene. Riad and a female passenger sustained non-life threatening injuries.

The complaint brought against Riad does not specifically mention Autopilot, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted the system was active at the time of the crash. Its investigation is still ongoing, as is the agency’s larger efforts to examine the misuse of Tesla’s semi-autonomous system in over a dozen incidents. This is not the first time people have blamed Tesla’s ubiquitous Autopilot, often described as “self-driving”, for a fatal accident. However, this is likely the first time prosecutors filed felony charges against the driver while a widespread advanced driver assistance system was engaged.

Tesla has repeatedly warned drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. It continues to do so in its cars when Autopilot is engaged — clearly showing drivers must be prepared to take over at any point. At this moment, the Society of Automotive Engineers consider the automaker’s system as “Level 2”, a “hands-on, eyes-on” system that requires humans to remain engaged in the process.

Tesla notifies drivers that they must keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times — including while the Autopilot system is engaged.

Riad’s hearing is in February

The criminal complaint does not directly mention Autopilot, while the NHTSA notes there is currently no vehicle on sale that can drive itself without any human intervention. When asked, the agency added that state laws still squarely hold human drivers responsible for the operation of a motor vehicle, regardless of what assistance systems are onboard.

Riad, a limousine driver, had pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charges. He is currently on bail while awaiting trial, with his preliminary hearing scheduled to take place on February 23. At time of writing, the LA County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment further on the case.