South Florida

Tesla autopilot called ‘dangerously defective’ in lawsuit by driver

An instrument panel in a Tesla Model S P90D vehicle.
An instrument panel in a Tesla Model S P90D vehicle. Bloomberg

The next time you find yourself driving near a Tesla, give a wide berth to the amazing car of the future.

It is still very much of the present.

A Davie lawyer, frustrated and alarmed by an autopilot with a mind of its own on his new $108,000 Tesla, is one of the lead plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the automaker claiming he was one of 50,000 customers who was sold a “dangerously defective” car that veered, lurched, slammed on the brakes for no reason or failed to slow when approaching other vehicles.

John Kelner loved the Tesla S 90D electric sedan after a test drive to Jupiter and back, and he looked forward to using its Enhanced Autopilot system when he purchased it in December. But operating the car when the software is activated has been an unpredictable, frightening experience, he says.

Something we don’t need on the mean streets of South Florida: Self-driving cars that are even more incompetent than our infamously bad human drivers.

“Rather than deliver safe and advanced autopilot features, Tesla has delivered software that causes vehicles to behave erratically,” according to the suit — the first to focus on self-driving car technology. “Contrary to what Tesla represented to them, buyers of affected vehicles have become beta testers of half-baked software that renders Tesla vehicles dangerous if engaged.”

Kelner is represented by automotive class action firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, which sued Volkswagen AG in the Dieselgate case.

Tesla did not fulfill its marketing promise to deliver the “safest, most exhilarating sedan on the road” designed to make highway driving “stress-free” and sold cars with inoperable or nonexistent features “which are standard on many cars costing less than half the cost of a new Tesla,” the suit said.

Tesla responded by saying its upgraded features were to be activated by drivers over a staggered roll-out period.

“This lawsuit is a disingenuous attempt to secure attorney’s fees posing as a legitimate legal action, which is evidenced by the fact that the suit misrepresents many facts,” Tesla said in a statement. “Many of the features this suit claims are ‘unavailable’ are in fact available, with more updates coming every month. We have always been transparent about the fact that Enhanced Autopilot software is a product that would roll out incrementally over time, and that features would continue to be introduced as validation is completed, subject to regulatory approval... The inaccurate and sensationalistic view of our technology put forth by this group is exactly the kind of misinformation that threatens to harm consumer safety.”

But Kelner claimed nothing worked from the minute he drove home from the dealership, not the Enhanced Autopilot system for which he paid $5,000 extra nor the hyped Standard Safety Features. There was no Traffic Aware Cruise Control, no autosteer, no Automatic Emergency Braking, no auto-sensing wipers, no side-collision warnings, no automatic high-beam headlights. After two updates in February and March, he and other Tesla owners are still having problems, placing “drivers and occupants of Tesla vehicles at risk of serious injury or death,” said the April 19 lawsuit. One owner said the autopilot reacts to highway overpasses by applying the brakes but doesn’t brake for cars stopped in front of it at stoplights.

A federal investigation of a 2016 fatal crash in Florida involving a Tesla Model S on autopilot concluded the car had no safety defects. The car was going 74 mph when it drove under an 18-wheel tractor-trailer hauling blueberries and making a left turn across U.S. 27 near Williston. Driver Joshua Brown of Canton, Ohio — who took no evasive action and did not apply his brakes — was killed when the roof was torn off. The truck driver told police he heard a Harry Potter movie playing in the car. Tesla said its sensors didn’t detect the white truck against a bright sky and the high ride height of the truck caused the car to pass underneath it.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also investigated dozens of other Tesla crashes and did not find “any incidents in which the systems did not perform as designed.” In many cases, “driver behavior factors” were to blame. Drivers were distracted, driving too fast for conditions or confused about the system’s responsibility.

Tesla’s genius chief and electric car pioneer Elon Musk says there are fewer crashes per miles driven on autopilot than in miles driven by humans, and experts agree that someday completely self-driving vehicles will make our roads safer.

“Yes, driverless cars are going to have accidents, but they’re going to have fewer accidents than humans,” Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, told the Los Angeles Times. “And unlike humans, driverless cars are going to keep getting better, halving the number of accidents per mile every so many months. The sooner we get on that exponential trajectory, the better.”

The NHTSA noted a 40 percent drop in crashes after an automatic steering feature was included in the Teslas. But its January report cautioned that autopilot systems are not meant to replace human drivers with robots. Drivers must be continually and fully attentive with hands on the wheel even when self-driving features are engaged, and automakers must design cars “with the inattentive driver in mind,” as well as provide better education on the limitations of the cars, the report said.

Autonomous self-driving cars are on the way. Apple, Google, Uber, Ford, Toyota, General Motors, Volkswagen and Tesla were among the companies that asked the state of California on Tuesday to amend its policies on the development and testing of self-driving cars. They’re all engaged in a furious technological race, with some projecting 2020 or 2021 for the cars’ debut. These smart navigators could precipitate a transformation for metropolises like Miami, where choked roadways and aggressive driving habits negatively impact our mental health and blood pressure.

Flying cars could be next, although the fantasy of this vision from “The Jetsons,” “Blade Runner,” “Back to the Future” and “Star Wars” hasn’t made much practical progress due to considerable obstacles, including the limits of the air traffic control system. Silicon Valley startups (including Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk), aerospace firm Airbus and the government of Dubai are among those testing models today. A Slovakian company has a proposal for personal flying machine that would cost $1.3 million. Uber’s “Urban Air Mobility” concept includes on-demand flying taxis.

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