Driver of Tesla on autopilot in fatal California crash to face trial, judge rules

A judge ruled Thursday that a trial can proceed against a Tesla Model S driver in a 2019 crash that left two people dead in Gardena.

The case is the first felony prosecution in the U.S. against a driver using widely available partial autopilot technology.

At a preliminary hearing in Compton, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Teresa P. Magno found there is sufficient evidence to try Kevin George Aziz Riad, 27, on two counts of vehicular manslaughter.

Prosecutors allege Riad was reckless and negligent when the Tesla slammed into a Honda Civic at 74 mph on Dec. 29, 2019 near the intersection of Artesia Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, where the 91 Freeway transitions to a street.

Gilberto Alcazar Lopez, 40, of Rancho Dominguez and Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez, 39, of Lynwood, who were in the Civic, were pronounced dead at the scene.

They were on their first date that night, relatives said Thursday.

The Tesla’s Autosteer and Traffic Aware Cruise Control were active when it blew through a red light and struck the Honda, prosecutors said.

LAPD officer Alvin Lee testified Thursday that numerous traffic signs warning drivers to slow down were posted approaching the end of the freeway. He said Riad told police he was driving up from Orange County with his girlfriend, and could only recall the smoke and deployed airbags before he was rushed to a hospital.

Riad’s attorney, Arthur Barens, asked the judge to lower the charges to misdemeanors, arguing any negligence by his client would have resulted in at most a citation had a fatal crash not occurred. The judge denied the motion.

Prosecutor Brandy Chase said Riad “did nothing to stop the crash.”

Sensors in the Model S indicated Riad’s hand was on the steering wheel leading up to and at the point of collision, Tesla engineer Eloy Rubio Blanco testified. Crash data showed that the steering wheel was kept near center, with no apparent attempt to change direction, and no brakes were applied in the six minutes preceding the crash.

On its website, Tesla states that cars making use of their autopilot technology should be operated by a “fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.” The system will only work if torque sensors in a steering wheel detect that someone is at the wheel, Rubio Blanco said.

The case against Riad is not the first involving an automated driving system, but it is the first to involve commercially available driver technology.

Authorities in Arizona filed a charge of negligent homicide in 2020 against a driver Uber had hired to take part in the testing of a fully autonomous vehicle on public roads. The Uber vehicle, an SUV with the human backup driver on board, struck and killed a pedestrian.

The U.S. government’s road safety agency has dispatched a team to investigate whether a Tesla involved in a Newport Beach crash that killed three people on May 12 was operating on a partially automated driving system.

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