An alarming video shared on Twitter on Sunday shows a driver and a passenger both passed out in what appears to be a Tesla Model X, based on the distinct appearance of the car door handles. The user who shared the tweet said that the pair was spotted on the Massachusetts Turnpike, a major highway that runs horizontally across the state.
There have been several publicized incidents of Tesla drivers falling asleep behind the wheel. In June, NBC Los Angeles reported that a driver fell asleep behind the wheel of his Tesla for dozens of miles on the state’s Interstate 405.
Meanwhile, in December, a man was arrested in Palo Alto under suspicion of driving while intoxicated. According to ABC, the man was driving a Model S at 70 miles per hour at 3:37 a.m., and he appeared to be completely asleep. According to Wired, police pulled over the car by slowing traffic around the car in order to activate autopilot's automatic braking.
According to the Tesla website, the Model S requires the driver to be actively engaged: “Current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet in December 2018 that if the driver stops interacting with the vehicle, it’s designed to slow, stop, turn on hazard lights, and alert Tesla service. (Musk’s tweet was in response to a tweet about the aforementioned DUI arrest.)
YouTube is full of videos of people "tricking" autopilot into thinking they're engaged with the vehicle. One video, for example, shows that if you tie a water bottle to the steering wheel, the car sometimes registers the weight and mistakes the water bottle for a human hand.
We don’t know exactly how long the driver has to be unresponsive before these features activate, whether these features differ in the Model or whether Tesla keeps data on how often drivers fall asleep behind the wheel. Tesla did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment, but we’ll update this article if we hear back.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported that falling asleep while driving, on average, causes more than 80,000 crashes annually. It’s obviously good news that Tesla’s autopilot feature prevented a crash in all publicized cases of falling asleep behind a Tesla wheel. But autopilot is designed to assist drivers, not replace them. Drivers who are drowsy or intoxicated can’t be behind the wheel, even if their car has autopilot.
Update: A reader told Motherboard that the Tesla shown in the video is most likely a Model X, not a Model S, based on the appearance of the door handle.