Technologist - The FindLaw Legal Technology Blog

Tesla Claims No Duty to Design a Fail-Safe

The seat belt -- the simple lap-belt design -- was not required on cars in the United States until a decade after its invention.

A fail-safe -- a device to stop unintended acceleration in electric cars -- is not required in America now. And Tesla, the electric, self-parking car manufacturer, says it has no duty to make one.

That is the big issue in a proposed class action filed in a California federal court recently. The lawsuit cites 26 incidents in which Tesla cars have suddenly accelerated, including 22 crashes. The plaintiffs allege a design defect, and say Tesla should have created a fail-safe to fix it.

Never Done Before

The parties are just warming up; a first-amended complaint having been filed and a motion to dismiss and/or strike set for hearing on May 1, 2017. The road to resolution, or innovation, however, may be long.

"Tesla's lack of response to this phenomenon is even more confounding when the vehicle is already equipped with the hardware necessary for the vehicle's computer to be able to intercede to prevent unintended acceleration," the complaint says.

But Tesla claims that it is not responsible under consumer protection laws or its auto warranty. It says automakers have no duty to design a fail-safe, which "no manufacturer has ever done."

Where's the Plug?

Given the nature of the electric vehicle, Tesla argues that it has no duty to include an "algorithm" to make a fail-safe against unintended acceleration. Moreover, the company says the accidents are caused by human error.

According to the lawsuit, however, there is something wrong with the cars' Automatic Emergency Braking system.

"When a frontal collision is considered unavoidable, Automatic Emergency Braking is designed to automatically apply the brakes to reduce the severity of the impact," the suit says. "But Tesla has programmed the system to deactivate when it receives instructions from the accelerator pedal to drive full speed into a fixed object."

If the class action is successful, the cost could be high for Tesla. The ABA Journal, reporting on the case, said Toyota paid nearly $1.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties for covering up its defective cars. The vehicles had unintended accelerations problems.

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