They weren’t driving, the men told the authorities. Their cars were.
According to the California Highway Patrol, the driver on the Bay Bridge explained that his Tesla “had been set on autopilot” when he passed out, obviating the need for him to be in control of the electric vehicle or, well, sober.
He was wrong, of course, and was ultimately jailed on suspicion of driving under the influence. His car was towed, the CHP noted Friday, adding: “No it didn’t drive itself to the tow yard.”
When u pass out behind the wheel on the Bay Bridge with more than 2x legal alcohol BAC limit and are found by a CHP Motor. Driver explained Tesla had been set on autopilot. He was arrested and charged with suspicion of DUI. Car towed (no it didn’t drive itself to the tow yard). pic.twitter.com/4NSRlOBRBL— CHP San Francisco (@CHPSanFrancisco) January 19, 2018
The second crash occurred several days later, nearly 400 miles to the south, when another Tesla that was being operated on autopilot slammed into a Culver City firetruck at an accident scene.
The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched two investigators to look into the Southern California crash. The NTSB said the focus of their investigation “is driver and vehicle factors.”
Culver City Fire Department battalion chief Ken Powell told the San Jose Mercury News the truck had been parked on the left side of the interstate, straddling the emergency and carpool lanes, with a CHP vehicle nearby. Both emergency vehicles had their lights flashing when the Tesla slammed into the truck, Powell told the newspaper.
The Culver City firefighters union said the Tesla was traveling at 65 mph when it hit the truck, but noted: “Amazingly there were no injuries!”
“It was a pretty big hit,” Powell told the Mercury News.
While working a freeway accident this morning, Engine 42 was struck by a #Tesla traveling at 65 mph. The driver reports the vehicle was on autopilot. Amazingly there were no injuries! Please stay alert while driving! #abc7eyewitness #ktla #CulverCity #distracteddriving pic.twitter.com/RgEmd43tNe— Culver City Firefighters (@CC_Firefighters) January 22, 2018
Authorities have not identified either driver.
Tesla can check the car’s data to see whether the cars were indeed using autopilot before the crash, but it has not released that information.
As word of more Tesla autopilot incidents spread, the cases of cars as designated drivers became interesting thought exercises.
If Elon Musk and other forward-thinking automakers have their way, there will soon be a time when there is no more drunken driving, because cars never have to wonder whether they’ve had one too many vodka martinis.
But until we all have our own computer-controlled, two-ton chauffeurs, we’re left with an increasing number of cars with a raft of features that make them semiautonomous — vehicles that are safer and smarter, if not particularly geniuses.
Carmakers are transparent about that caveat emptor quality of their vehicles.
Tesla, for example, warns that its autopilot system is not fully autonomous. The company instructs drivers to be alert because they are ultimately responsible for their vehicle and whatever it smacks into. “Autopilot is intended for use only with a fully attentive driver,” a Tesla spokesman told The Washington Post.
But humans can slip into complacency when the car is doing most or all of the work.
For example, a fatal Tesla crash involving the autopilot system drew international scrutiny in spring 2016. The Model S had been set on autopilot and neither the vehicle nor the driver recognized that a tractor-trailer hauling blueberries had turned onto the divided highway.
In its report, the National Transportation Safety Board cited Joshua Brown’s overreliance on the autopilot. He had set the speed at 10 mph over the posted speed limit and in the final 37 minutes of his drive, he had his hands on the wheel for just 25 seconds. He also ignored seven dashboard warnings and six audible warnings.
For Brown, those mistakes were fatal. But as technology advances, automakers say, they won’t be mistakes at all.
“We aimed for a very simple, clean design, because in the future — really, the future being now — the cars will be increasingly autonomous,” Musk said in July, according to The Post’s Peter Holley. “So you won’t really need to look at an instrument panel all that often. You’ll be able to do whatever you want: You’ll be able to watch a movie, talk to friends, go to sleep.”
And Musk and other autonomous vehicle proponents have disseminated videos and other media that show autopilot at its best, protecting drivers, passengers and even pedestrians from crashes.
This post did not originally differentiate between the two separate Tesla crashes. It has been updated.