The family of a man who died when his Tesla Model X crashed last year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the car manufacturer, claiming the vehicle's Autopilot function and emergency braking system were defective. Attorneys representing the family say Tesla's actions amount to beta testing vehicle software on "live drivers."
Walter Huang, a 38-year-old San Mateo resident and an Apple engineer, was traveling south on Highway 101 in Mountain View on March 23, 2018, when his vehicle veered left and struck the barrier between southbound Highway 101 and the Highway 85 carpool flyover.
Huang was extracted from the Tesla shortly before the vehicle's damaged battery caught fire. He died in the hospital several hours later of his injuries.
The fatal crash has been the subject of scrutiny after it was revealed that Tesla's Autopilot -- described as a driving assistance tool that includes cruise control and Autosteer "lane-keeping assistance" -- had been active in the moments prior to the crash. Four days after the collision, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced it was opening an investigation into the accident.
A preliminary report from the agency found that the vehicle had started a "left steering" movement seven seconds prior to the crash, and accelerated from 62 miles per hour to 70.8 miles per hour with "no pre-crash braking or evasive steering movement detected" in the final three seconds before striking the highway barrier.
The civil complaint from the family, filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court, alleges that Tesla marketed its Autopilot and automatic emergency braking systems as safe features designed to prevent crashes, and that the vehicle did not deliver on those promises.
"A safe and properly functioning automatic emergency braking system does not allow a crash to occur that could otherwise have been avoided or reduced in severity," the lawsuit states. "A safe and properly functioning automatic emergency braking system should prevent a vehicle from accelerating into any fixed object."
The suit goes on to claim that Tesla's own testing and reports from NTSB found the Model X was prone to "unwanted, unwarranted or un-commanded acceleration" and lacked the sensors and systems needed to keep the car from leaving a travel lane. Such risks, the suit asserts, should have warranted a post-market warning, advisory or recall.
The law firm representing the family, Minami Tamaki LLP, released a statement Wednesday morning, May 1, announcing the wrongful death suit, which was filed on behalf of Huang's wife, Sevonne Huang. Huang is also survived by his son and daughter, ages 4 and 7, and two elderly parents who were dependent on Huang for financial support.
"Mrs. Huang lost her husband, and two children lost their father because Tesla is beta testing its Autopilot software on live drivers," Mark Fong, an attorney for the firm, said in the statement. "The Huang family wants to help prevent this tragedy from happening to other drivers using Tesla vehicles or any semi-autonomous vehicles."
A spokesperson for Tesla declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The suit also accuses Caltrans of failing to maintain safe conditions at the location of the crash, arguing that there was a damaged safeguard where the Highway 85 carpool lane splits from Highway 101. The preliminary NTSB report found that a cushioning system called a "crash attenuator," designed to soften a high-speed collision into the median, had been damaged 11 days prior to the crash and not been replaced.
The complaint argues that the attenuator was not replaced in a timely manner and that Caltrans' actions were "negligent and careless" and amounted to leaving a dangerous, defective and hazardous condition of public property.
Just weeks after the crash, the NTSB took the unusual step of revoking Tesla's involvement in the investigation after the agency officials said the company released "incomplete information" that was neither vetted or confirmed by the agency. The information, released by Tesla in a series of blog posts and statements to the media, implied that user error was a factor in the fatal crash.
"Such releases of incomplete information often lead to speculation and incorrect assumptions about the probable cause of a crash, which does a disservice to the investigative process and the traveling public," according to an NTSB statement on April 12, 2018.
Tesla's website cites data for the first quarter of 2019 showing that there was one accident for every 2.87 million miles driven in Tesla vehicles with Autopilot engaged, and one accident for every 1.76 million miles without Autopilot. The average, across all automobiles, is a crash every 436,000 miles, according to the website.
The March 23, 2018, crash also posed an unusual challenge for the Mountain View Fire Department, which responded to the vehicle fire caused by a 400-volt lithium-ion battery within the interior of the Model X. The department blasted the exposed portion of the battery with 200 gallons of water and foam, according to the preliminary NTSB report, and received additional support from Tesla engineers before the car was towed to a San Mateo impound lot. The battery reignited five days later and was extinguished by the San Mateo Fire Department.