Tesla Model 3 Autopilot Dangerous? Jovani Maldonado Lawsuit Claims Crash Happened Because Car is Not Safe

Last Updated on July 6, 2021

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Tesla, the famed tech-savvy automobile manufacturer, is the defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit. The death is that of 15-year-old Jovani Maldonado, killed in a collision between a Tesla Model 3 and a Ford Explorer pickup on a California freeway nearly two years ago. 

The lawsuit alleges that the crash happened because the Tesla Model 3 has Autopilot: a system that steers, brakes, and accelerates independent of human command, and that also records video and data.

Before the Tesla rear-ended the pickup, Jovani had been in the front passenger’s seat and unbelted. The impact threw him through the windshield to his death.

Direction of Tech in Doubt 

This, and other recent accidents and investigations, have thrown into doubt the future of autopilot and, beyond, of autonomous driving systems.  

Autopilot is not itself an autonomous driving system. It is a bundle of software and sensors that takes over many aspects of driving. But that does so with the presumption of human supervision. Tesla’s executives have long contended that autopilot makes driving less dangerous, because human mistakes and distractions cause most traffic fatalities.

In the Maldonado accident, though, neither the Autopilot nor the driver acted to slow the Tesla until less than a second before the crash, according to the data the Tesla itself recorded. 

What will investors think of Tesla's wrongful death lawsuit?
Investors will have to concern themselves with what the increasing uncertainty about such vehicles means for Tesla stock (NASDAQ: TSLA). Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

Romeo Lagman Yalung was driving the Tesla. The company’s lawyer, in a letter to the Maldonado family lawyer, blamed Yalung, in seeking to exonerate the company. But that response merely emphasizes a couple of the key issues here. First, if the point of the move to fully autonomous vehicles is precisely that Yalung will not be to blame, isn’t this evidence that safe autonomous vehicles are still years away, rather than as imminent as Tesla’s relentless marketing suggests? 

Second, isn’t there a natural all-too-human tendency to blur the distinction between autopilot and autonomous driving? So that if Yalung was not paying attention to the extent he should have been, that fact was not solely Yalung’s fault? 

The literature on contemporary vehicular technology is full of efforts to parse where manufacturers’ liability ends and the safety responsibility of the drivers begins. Such efforts will no doubt continue.

An Important Export Market

Investors, meanwhile, will have to concern themselves with what the increasing uncertainty about such vehicles means for Tesla stock (NASDAQ: TSLA). The New York Times posted its story about the Maldonado child’s death Monday evening, July 5. At the start of trading Tuesday TSLA was valued at $681.81. It lost more than $24 of that value within an hour. Its low for the day, soon after noon, was at $652. 

Britain provides an important export market for the Tesla. Indeed, the Model 3 (the car involved in Maldonado’s death) recently became the best-selling car in the UK auto market. In the month of June Tesla delivered nearly 5.5K Model 3 sedans to the U.K.’s drivers, three times the May number. In Britain, the political climate, even with Conservatives in the majority in Parliament, has been in support of the Paris Accord, and Tesla is benefitting from the consensus on lowering carbon emissions. 

Yet Britain’s Daily Mail is giving Maldonado’s death a lot of attention, stressing the pressure that it says such accidents have put on U.S. regulators. But here politics and environmental sentiment has been working in Tesla’s favor.

The issue of the degree to which Tesla and its Autopilot, and autopilots in general, is safe will have huge significance for investors. As a general rule, technology does not drive market demand. Demand drives technology.