California Highway Patrol arrested a 45-year-old man on suspicion of DUI in Palo Alto after an officer saw him nodding off in his Tesla, which may have been motoring along a highway on Autopilot. According to a KTVU news report, no injuries or damages were reported. Officials arrested the driver Alexander Samek, who is the chair of the Los Altos Planning Commission.
Asleep at the Wheel with Autopilot Engaged
Samek was driving a Tesla on U.S. Highway 101 south of Whipple Road in Redwood City at about 70 mph, which is slightly over the speed limit. When officers pulled up closer to the Tesla, they noticed that the driver appeared drowsy and was possibly sleeping at the wheel. The officers tried to get Samek to stop, but he did not.
Officers then drove in front of the Tesla to slow the car down and finally, the driver woke up. At that point, Samek pulled off the freeway and made his way to Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto where he stopped at a gas station. Officers then arrested him. Authorities say it appears that the Tesla was being driven in autonomous mode or Autopilot. However, they say, they won’t be able to establish that with certainty until the investigation is completed.
Dangers of Autopilot
Tesla’s Autopilot is a semi-automated feature, which still requires a fully attentive driver. However, the name “Autopilot” in itself can confuse motorists into thinking that they can engage the feature and indulge in other activities, which would normally be considered distractions during driving. As automakers and tech companies pursue driverless vehicles, some cars are getting augmented incrementally with automated technologies such as obstacle detection and lane centering.
In theory, these features are supposed to reduce the risk of crashes. However, these are features that are intended for the use of only a fully attentive driver. It was only after several accidents including a fatal one in Florida in May 2016 that Tesla began to walk back its claims on Autopilot, saying that it is not “entirely automated” and that drivers should be attentive and ready to take over in a moment’s notice even if Autopilot is engaged. This caused Consumer Reports to urge Tesla to change the name Autopilot so drivers are not misled by the name and lulled into a false sense of security.
This disturbing DUI incident in Northern California is further evidence that drivers are still being misled into believing that putting their car in Autopilot might allow them to drive under the influence or while distracted or fatigued. Our auto defect lawyers believe this is a dangerous assumption, which could lead to many more unsafe situations on our roadways.