Tesla sued for its "half-baked" Autopilot software

April 21, 2017

Since Tesla Autopilot debuted in the fall of 2015, it's earned plenty of fans and foes. The former love the safety and convenience offered by the semi-self-driving system, while the latter complain that Tesla foisted dangerous beta software on owners who didn't ask for it. 

This week, Autopilot critics filed a class-action suit in federal court. A scan of the case summary, Dean Sheikh et al v. Tesla, Inc., shows that the plaintiffs have two major issues:

1. Owners shelled out for groundbreaking software that hasn't arrived on the promised schedule.

2. The bits of software that have rolled out aren't ready for prime-time.

The unfulfilled promise of Autopilot 2

The suit centers on Tesla vehicles that were purchased with Autopilot 2 hardware, which became available in October 2016. That hardware will ultimately offer many more features than Autopilot 1 did--including something approaching fully autonomous driving by middle of the year, if Tesla's CEO, Elon Musk, is to be believed. 

However, the software updates that make use of Tesla's new hardware have been slow in coming. Initially features like collision avoidance and automatic emergency braking had been expected to arrive in December 2016. However, as the lawsuit states, "most of [Autopilot's] 'Standard Safety Features' remain inoperative months after customers have taken delivery."

Furthermore, the suit charges that the handful of offerings that have become available on vehicles with Autopilot 2 are sub-standard, including the "dangerously defective Traffic Aware Cruise Control." It goes on to allege that:

"Rather than deliver safe and advanced autopilot features, Tesla has delivered software that causes vehicles to behave erratically. 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."

The suit claims that Tesla lied to consumers, encouraging them to pay thousands of dollars for features that are still nowhere to be found. 

So, what, exactly, do plaintiffs want?

"Specifically, Plaintiffs seek, at their election and that of putative class members: buyback of the Affected Vehicles, including a full refund for the software putative class members purchased; return of the premium paid for the Enhanced Autopilot, if purchased, over the cost of the same model without Enhanced Autopilot; restitution for purchase of service packages that will go unused as to cars bought back; and punitive damages for Tesla’s knowing fraud that garnered it illicit profits for a product suite that does not exist and put drivers at risk." [emphasis ours]

The plaintiffs are represented by car owners' favorite class-action firm, Hagens Berman. 

Tesla describes the lawsuit as "disingenuous" and "inaccurate and sensationalistic". The company also says that this kind of lawsuit "threatens to harm consumer safety", which is perilously close to the rhetoric that Musk used last October when he said that critics of self-driving technology like Autopilot were directly responsible for "killing people."

Our take

We're not lawyers, so we'll avoid wading too far into the merits of the plaintiffs' case. However, we will say that updates for Autopilot 2 hardware have been slow to roll out. A few appeared at the end of March, including the availability of Summon and a higher speed limit for Autosteer, but those still leave Autopilot 2's inherent capabilities largely untapped. 

So, yes, the plaintiffs may be able to make a compelling argument when they talk about the delay in software upgrades. 

They may also be persuasive in describing Tesla Autopilot as beta software--after all, Elon Musk himself has described it in those same terms. Granted, he's tried to distinguish between Autopilot's beta status and that of the Chrome browser you may be using just now, but still there's no denying that it's in beta. 

On the other hand, Tesla has justified the delays by saying that Autopilot updates needed to be validated and receive regulatory approval before being made available to consumers. Though some would say that such claims of consumer-focused caution are disingenuous, given the way that Tesla rolled out Autopilot a year and a half ago, the sentiment could play well in court. At any rate, it will probably be more persuasive than if Tesla had launched autonomous tech without fully vetting it. 

We'll keep you posted as the case progresses. 

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