There may come a day when cars can truly drive themselves and you can take a nap during your commute, but we’re not there yet. In the meantime, the ever-advancing state of self-driving technology has made some people a bit too comfortable turning over control to a system that can’t respond as effectively as a human driver. The California Highway Patrol recently pulled over a Tesla with some difficulty after police spotted the driver passed out behind the wheel.
The incident took place on Highway 101 when a patrol car spotted a Tesla Model S with a driver that appeared to be asleep. While the Tesla Autopilot system can handle some basic driving tasks, it’s not good enough that you can take a nap. The driver, 45-year-old Alexander Samek, was drunk and had passed out on his way home. You could argue that having the Autopilot system driving was probably safer than giving the heavily impaired human control of the car, but neither situation is legal.
Autonomous driving systems generally fall into one of five levels. Level one includes basic automation like lane assistance. At level two, a car can support for one or more tasks without the driver’s constant interaction — for example, many modern cars can steer and brake for several seconds on the highway without your hands on the wheel. Level three is where most research is currently focused. These vehicles use advanced sensors to scan the environment and drive for extended periods while responding to changing conditions. At level four and five, cars can drive well enough that you don’t have to pay attention at all. Level four can handle most types of driving, and level five is full automation that you never need to think about.
Tesla’s Autopilot system is somewhere between level two and three, so it’s certainly not good enough to take a nap behind the wheel. Patrol cars following Samek’s Tesla were unable to rouse him from his alcohol-fueled slumber, which made stopping the Tesla rather tricky. They eventually worked out a method to use the car’s own sensors to stop it. One patrol car stayed behind the Tesla, driving in a sweeping S-curve to keep other cars from getting in the way. Meanwhile, another cruiser maneuvered in front of the Model S and gradually slowed down. The Tesla’s radar saw a slower car in front, so it too slowed down. Eventually, it stopped in the middle of the highway.
It took about seven miles for police to bring the Model S to a stop. Samek was promptly arrested for drunk driving, but a cunning lawyer might attempt to point out he wasn’t technically driving. Whatever the outcome, this is a brave new world.
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