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Houston-Area Constables, Police Officer Sue Tesla Over ‘Autopilot’ Crash

Elon Musk speaks on a stage
Jae C. Hong, File
AP Photo

Five Texas police officers are suing Tesla Motors after being hit by the electric car company's Model X — which was operated by a user in its so-called "autopilot" mode.

Four Montgomery County Constables and a Splendora Police Officer were searching a car for drugs in late February when a Tesla going 70 mph struck four police SUVs, pushing the cars into the officers, injuring them.

Media reports from the night of showed that two of the SUVs were totaled.

The accident took place about 35 minutes north of Houston. The complaint says the driver was drunk and using the autopilot feature of the car. Michael Minh Le, 47, was identified by police at the time of the accident, but he is not listed in the suit. Pappasitos Cantina — the Mexican restaurant where he was prior to the accident, is also being sued for overserving him.

The police were seriously injured, according to the civil complaint. The men suffered permanent disabilities as a result. The officers are suing for $20 million. The suit was filed in Harris County on Monday.

A spokesman for the constables on the night of the accident told a different story. The Montgomery County Courier reported that all police had avoided serious injury at the time. According to the report the men suffered soft-tissue injury and soreness but were cleared by hospital staff. The man whose car they were searching that night, however, had been put into the hospital in critical condition.

The complaint alleges that Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk have continued to paint the self-driving function as safer than it is, calling the claims "vastly and irresponsibly overstated."

"Tesla knows and encourages drivers to think that their autopilot and self-drive modes are better than regular cruise control, but then in their written warning to consumers, tell them to maintain the type of control over the vehicle that would be expected and appropriate with any standard cruise control system," reads the complaint.

Tesla has been one of many companies seeking to monetize a fully self-driving car and many have resulted in accidents. Many experts believe that the capability would be safer than a human driver.

The complaint said the autopilot feature cannot detect emergency vehicles flashing lights and points to a dozen similar accidents the past four years involving its autopilot system and emergency vehicles at a scene with flashing lights. The autopilot system was introduced in 2014.

Tesla Motors did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.

Paul Flahive is the accountability reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.