NATIONAL NEWS

While a criminal case against a Tesla driver ends, legal and ethical questions on Autopilot endure

Aug 14, 2023, 10:15 PM

FILE - Clouds are reflected above the company logo on the hood of a Tesla vehicle outside a showroo...

FILE - Clouds are reflected above the company logo on the hood of a Tesla vehicle outside a showroom in Littleton, Colo. A criminal prosecution against a Tesla driver in Los Angeles County will end on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, the final step of a case believed to be the first time in the U.S. that prosecutors brought felony charges against a motorist who was using a partially automated driving system. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A criminal prosecution against a Tesla driver in Los Angeles County will end on Tuesday, the final step of a case believed to be the first time in the U.S. prosecutors brought felony charges against a motorist who was using a partially automated driving system.

But the conclusion of driver Kevin Aziz Riad’s case is offering little solace to Lorena Ochoa, whose spouse was one of two people killed in the 2019 crash in a Los Angeles suburb. She believes both Tesla and Aziz Riad, who received probation as punishment, should face harsher consequences.

Aziz Riad faces a restitution hearing on Tuesday, where a judge will determine how much money he owes the families of Gilberto Alcazar Lopez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez. Aziz Riad was using Autopilot, and the case has raised legal and ethical questions about the technology, particularly as Tesla sales grow and more automakers equip cars with similar systems.

The victims’ families have separately filed civil lawsuits against Aziz Riad and Tesla that are ongoing.

Tesla says on its website that its cars require human supervision and are not autonomous, but critics say the electric vehicle maker continues a misleading marketing campaign implying that vehicles using Autopilot can drive themselves.

“They make cars that they know cause accidents, and they don’t care,” said Ochoa, Alcazar Lopez’s spouse, in an interview in Spanish last week. “Families are broken, lives are lost and they don’t care.”

Authorities say Aziz Riad, a limousine service driver, was at the wheel of a Tesla Model S that was moving at 74 mph (119 kph) when it left a freeway and ran a red light on a local street in Gardena, California, on Dec. 29, 2019. The Tesla struck a Honda Civic at an intersection, and Alcazar Lopez and Nieves-Lopez died at the scene.

Tesla says Autopilot technology can keep a car in its lane, maintain some distance from cars in front of it and make lane changes. But Autopilot has had trouble with stopping for emergency vehicles parked on roads, and it’s also under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for braking without driver input.

U.S. safety regulators are probing Tesla’s partially automated driving systems in at least 35 crashes and 17 deaths nationwide since 2016. The automaker did not respond to requests for comment.

Experts saw the felony charges for the deaths of Alcazar Lopez and Nieves-Lopez as a warning for drivers who use systems like Tesla’s Autopilot that they cannot rely on them to control vehicles and could face prosecution if a tragedy occurred.

Aziz Riad, the Tesla driver, pleaded no contest to two counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. Despite facing more than seven years behind bars, a judge sentenced him to probation in June.

Ochoa blames both Aziz Riad and Tesla for her spouse’s death. She had hoped Aziz Riad would go to prison and feels probation was too lenient.

“How can there be justice if the person who took the life of the father of my children, of my husband, is free and is not paying for the mistake he made?” she said. “It is not fair.”

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office defended the plea deal in a statement, saying the disposition “was arrived at taking into account all of the evidence and materials presented in the case.”

The couple had separated but co-parented their three children and remained on good terms. In 2019, Alcazar Lopez was living in Los Angeles with their eldest. He was a good father, Ochoa said, and looked out for his family even though the spouses were apart.

Alcazar Lopez and Nieves-Lopez had been on their first date when the crash occurred.

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who follows automated vehicles, says the law has to balance two arguments that are both correct. One is that people should be held accountable for mistakes if they fail to control a two-ton vehicle. Another is that in Aziz Riad’s case, there’s no evidence he intended to kill anyone.

Arthur Barens, Aziz Riad’s criminal defense lawyer, said he is “comfortable” with probation given his client did not mean to do anything wrong.

The question of civil liability is even more complex. Is Aziz Riad responsible for the deaths, since he was behind the wheel, or is Tesla?

It’s possible to argue Tesla engineers should know that people will become too reliant on driver-assist systems and trust them too much, Walker Smith said.

For years, he and others have said Tesla can do more to make its technology safer. Their suggestions include limiting Autopilot use to freeways, as well as upgrading a driver-monitoring system that currently allows drivers to “check out” while behind the wheel. Walker Smith also wants Tesla’s technology to shut down faster if it determines drivers are not watching the road.

Similar technology from Ford and General Motors, for instance, monitor drivers with infrared cameras to make sure they’re paying attention. If they don’t, the systems warn the drivers and will turn off. They also confine use of their systems to mostly limited-access freeways and turn them off when they are on city streets, which are more complex and present more dangers.

Don Slavik, an attorney representing Alcazar Lopez’s family in their lawsuit, said he will argue in court that Tesla has been marketing its cars as being able to drive themselves since at least 2016. Civil attorneys for Aziz Riad and Nieves-Lopez’s family did not respond to inquiries.

Slavik said he has little hope Tesla will change its behavior or upgrade the technology even if he wins a big judgment for Alcazar Lopez’s family.

“Maybe not this case, but after they get hit enough times, maybe they’ll make some significant changes,” he said.

__

Krisher reported from Detroit. Associated Press Writer Amy Taxin in Orange County, California, contributed.

National News

Supporters wave to former President Donald Trump as he arrives to the Milwaukee Mitchell Internatio...

Associated Press

America’s toxic political climate faces calls to ‘tone it down’ after assassination attempt on Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — “Tone it down!” That was the plea from one Republican congressman as he came to grips with the assassination attempt against Donald Trump at a political rally in the Butler Farm area where he grew up. “I am in a state of bewilderment of how and what has happened to the United […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Winston, beloved gorilla at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, dies at 52 after suffering health problems

ESCONDIDO, Calif. (AP) — Winston, a western lowland gorilla who was a favorite attraction at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, has died at the age of 52 after suffering multiple health problems, officials said. The park said Winston was euthanized Saturday after veterinarians determined his condition was declining. “After careful consideration stemming from furthering […]

2 hours ago

Photo: Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is surrounded by U.S. Secret...

Julie Carr Smyth, Jill Colvin, Colleen Long, Michael Balsamo, Eric Tucker and Michelle L. Price, The Associated Press

Trump heads to convention as authorities investigate motive, security in assassination attempt

Trump called for unity and resilience after an attempt on his life added fresh uncertainty to an already tumultuous presidential campaign.

2 hours ago

Photo: President Joe Biden speaks from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday,...

Will Weissert and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

In primetime address, Biden says country must not go down road of political violence

President Joe Biden says “we can’t, we must not go down” the road of political violence in America after the attempted Trump assassination.

3 hours ago

Gov. Greg Abbott receives a briefing for Hurricane Beryl from local elected officials Sunday, July ...

Associated Press

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott demands answers as customers remain without power after Beryl

DALLAS (AP) — With around 350,000 homes and businesses still without power in the Houston area almost a week after Hurricane Beryl hit Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday said he’s demanding an investigation into the response of the utility that serves the area as well as answers about its preparations for upcoming storms. “Power […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Acclaimed video artist Bill Viola dies at 73, created landmark `Tristan und Isolde’ production

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Bill Viola, a video artist who combined with director Peter Sellars on a groundbreaking production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” originally seen in Los Angeles, Paris and New York, has died at age 73. Viola died Friday at his home in Long Beach of Alzheimer’s disease, his website announced. What […]

7 hours ago

While a criminal case against a Tesla driver ends, legal and ethical questions on Autopilot endure