One driver had a blood alcohol content nearly double the legal limit and a tenuous relationship with consciousness when authorities found him on the Bay Bridge, between San Francisco and Oakland.
Another slammed at high speed into the back of a parked firetruck on Interstate 405 near Los Angeles.
But the two Tesla owners may be the first and second to add a technologically advanced new entry to the list of reckless-driving excuses.
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.”
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.
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.