On Jan. 21, 2019, Michael Casuga drove his new Tesla Model 3 southbound on Santiago Canyon Road, a two-lane highway that twists through hilly woodlands east of Santa Ana, Calif.
He wasn't alone, in one sense: Tesla's semiautonomous driver-assist system, known as Autopilot -- which can steer, brake and change lanes -- was activated. Suddenly and without warning, Casuga claims in a Superior Court of California lawsuit, Autopilot yanked the car left. The Tesla crossed a double yellow line, and without braking, drove through the oncoming lane and crashed into a ditch, all before Casuga was able to retake control.
Tesla confirmed Autopilot was engaged, according to the suit, but said the driver was to blame, not the technology. Casuga's attorney, Mike Nelson in New York City, asked Tesla to release the data to show exactly what happened. Tesla refused, the suit claims, and referred Casuga and his lawyer to the car's event data recorder, known as the black box. But the black box -- a common feature in cars since the early 2000s -- doesn't record Autopilot data. Autopilot information is captured and stored separately, often sent over the airwaves to Tesla's remote cloud computer repository.
Finding out who or what causes a car crash should be easier today. Cars have become computers on wheels, bristling with sensors, data processors and memory chips. Data "is significantly better and more potentially useful than ever," said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety advocacy group.
But the ownership and accessibility of much of that data is in flux, as legislators and regulators play catch-up with the fact that human beings and mobile robot systems increasingly share the driving.
Casuga's lawsuit is an attempt to get a court order for Tesla to turn over his car's data, Nelson said. If the data were recorded on the car's black box, Casuga would have legal access. But no laws or regulatory requirements give car owners the right to access operational information, not even basic safety data, if it's not on the black box. (And in some states, even the black box data doesn't belong to the car owner.)
"The car manufacturer knows what happened," Nelson said. But short of a court order, a car maker is not bound to release information on semiautonomous driving systems to a car owner, a lawyer, to safety researchers, even to a police department investigating a fatal crash (though The Times found no evidence that Tesla or other companies are resisting police requests). Only federal safety regulators have on-demand rights to car crash data collected onboard by the manufacturer but not on the black box.
A rare public airing of driver-assist technology's role in traffic crashes will occur Tuesday in a meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board, where two fatal Tesla incidents involving Autopilot will be discussed, including the 2018 Model X crash that killed Apple engineer Walter Huang in Mountain View, Calif. The meeting will be viewable via webcast.
Levine hopes some basic questions will be addressed at the meeting. "How is the technology working? Is it failing? When it's failing, is it operator's failure or the technology's failure?" Levine said. "You can't always determine all of that from the (black box) event data recorder."
Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment.