SAN FRANCISCO — In a challenge to its self-driving car technology, Tesla Motors on Wednesday was hit with a lawsuit by class action heavyweight Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro alleging that the automaker sold nearly 50,000 cars with defective autopilot software and knowingly put drivers in harm’s way.
“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,” states the complaint filed in federal court in San Jose, California. The three named plaintiffs say they spent between $81,000 and $113,000 on their vehicles, and describe white-knuckle experience using their cars’ autopilot features.
According to the complaint, Dean Shiekh, a Tesla owner in Colorado, said his car would veer out of its lane, “lurching, slamming on the brakes for no reason, and failing to slow or stop when approaching other vehicles and obstacles” when the autopilot mode was engaged.
“The Enhanced Autopilot features are simply too dangerous to be used, and are therefore, completely useless notwithstanding the $5,000 premium” that Shiekh paid for the feature, it adds. The suit also says that Sheikh’s car still does not have operable automatic emergency braking, side collision warnings, or the auto-sensing windshield wipers that are supposed to come standard with his Tesla Model S 60D.
A Tesla spokesperson responded to the allegations with a statement calling the suit a “disingenuous attempt to secure attorney’s fees.”
It continued: “Many of the features this suit claims are ‘unavailable’ are in fact available, with more updates coming every month. We have always been transparent about the fact that Enhanced Autopilot software is a product that would roll out incrementally over time, and that features would continue to be introduced as validation is completed, subject to regulatory approval.”
The specific autopilot features available to Tesla drivers depends largely on local regulatory approval, which it makes clear to customers, the company stated.
The suit alleges that Tesla violated the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, saying that the law requires immediate action when a manufacturer learns or should know that a safety defect exists. It also says Tesla conducted a slick marketing campaign that made a series of false promises about its technology—including a video that showed a car deftly navigating curves and traffic without input by the driver.
The models targeted by the complaint are Model S and Model X vehicles equipped with hardware necessary for use of Enhance Autopilot, or “AP2.0.” The suit says Tesla sold approximately 22,000 of the affected models in the last quarter of 2016 and another 25,000 in the first quarter of this year.
The suit is not the first to target Tesla over the safety of its vehicles. Another case, filed in December by McCune Wright Arevalo and Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth, alleges that Model S and Model X vehicles experience “sudden unintended acceleration”—in one instance causing the car to crash into a driver’s living room. Tesla is represented by Morrison & Foerster in that case. A motion to dismiss is pending in front of U.S. District Judge James Selna of the Central District of California.
Hagens Berman has been on a roll suing automakers in the United States and internationally. It has been involved in the “dieselgate” litigation against Volkswagen AG, and has also sued Mercedes-Benz, General Motors Co. and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles over similar emissions issues. But the Tesla suit is the first among them to deal with advanced self-driving car technology.
Founding partner Steve Berman said in a statement that Tesla knew it was overhyping its autopilot features and didn’t have the capability to follow through. “It knowingly deceived tens of thousands who put their faith in these cars and in Tesla,” he said.