Autonomous cars are here, and more Americans are purchasing vehicles that have some of their features: lane assist, automatic braking, and so forth. Most people may think these vehicles, which come with modes called “autopilot” or something similar, are fully capable of driving themselves, and that human intervention is not as necessary as it actually is. The truth of the matter is that, at most, these current vehicles are only capable of partial autonomous driving, and that human attention and availability is always required.
So what happens when one of these vehicles causes an accident while it is operated in one of its autonomous modes? Who is at fault: the driver, the car, the manufacturers? In 2019, a couple was in their car, driving through an intersection near midnight on the 29th of December. As they drove through the intersection, a 2016 Tesla Model S on Autopilot ran through the red light and crashed into the couple’s car, killing them both instantly. The driver of the Tesla, Kevin George Aziz Riad, was charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter nearly two years later. Per the Los Angeles Times, “Experts believe it is the first felony prosecution in the United States of a driver accused of causing a fatality while using a partially automated driver-assist system.”
This case is the first of its kind, and with it comes an important reminder: that no matter how autonomous vehicles are today, none of them are fully capable of driving themselves just yet, and that ultimately, humans are responsible for how their car acts on the road.
How autonomous is autonomous?
When it comes to the level of autonomy that cars have, there are a few levels that designate exactly how autonomous the vehicle is. According to The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), there are six levels of autonomy for vehicles.
- Level 0: No autonomy, the driver must perform all the tasks.
- Level 1: The vehicle is controlled by the driver, but can be assisted by the advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) which can assist the driver with features such as steering, braking/accelerating, but not at the same time.
- Level 2: The ADAS in level 2 vehicles can actually control the steering and braking/accelerating at the same time in certain situations but needs the attention of the human driver at all times to be able to handle safely and perform other driving tasks when needed.
- Level 3: With the addition of the automated driving system (ADS), the vehicle is now able to take over most driving functions under certain circumstances, and the human driver does not need to pay as much attention to the environment, though the human driver should be ready to take over the controls of the vehicle if necessary, and in any other situations.
- Level 4: The vehicle is completely controlled by the ADS in certain circumstances, and the human driver does not need to pay attention during those situations.
- Level 5: The vehicle is completely controlled by the ADS in all situations. The human driver and other occupants need not pay attention or intervene at all. They are simply passengers.
As we see what each level’s requirements are, we might guess that the cars that are being sold today are perhaps level 3 or above, but that is not the case. Only level 2 autonomous vehicles are currently on the market, but they are still labeled as having features such as Autopilot, SuperCruise, and ProPilot, which leaves the consumer with the idea that it can drive itself, as we might see in movies or TV shows.
Why is the driver being charged with a felony?
Regardless of the names of the features, the driver is still responsible for his vehicle. If he had been distracted by his children in the backseat, or was driving drunk, no one would think twice about whether or not he should be charged with a crime. Running through a red light and accidentally killing someone would lead to a vehicular manslaughter charge in Maryland, too. If the driver were charged here, he could face the following penalties:
- Manslaughter by vehicle or vessel – Gross negligence § 2-209. A person may not cause the death of another as a result of the person’s driving, operating, or controlling a vehicle or vessel in a grossly negligent manner…. [A] person who violates this section is guilty of a felony and on conviction is subject to imprisonment not exceeding 10 years or a fine not exceeding $5,000 or both.
- Manslaughter by vehicle or vessel — Criminal negligence § 2-210.A person may not cause the death of another as the result of the person’s driving, operating, or controlling a vehicle or vessel in a criminally negligent manner…. [A] person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction is subject to imprisonment not exceeding 3 years or a fine not exceeding $5,000 or both.
As it is, the legal precedent for these sorts of events is near non-existent, which means there may be new ways of defending those charged with felonies related to autonomous driving. Until then, Carey Law Office will continue to apply the law to your defense no matter what charges you face. Please call 301-464-2500 or use our contact form to set up a consultation with a criminal defense lawyer at our Bowie, Crofton, or Owings office. We also serve all of Calvert County.
My name is Joseph Carey, and I founded Carey Law Office 37 years ago. Since that day, the firm has helped people throughout the state get their lives back on track. We understand that there is almost always an underlying reason for people’s actions, and that your life shouldn’t end because you made a mistake. Learn More