In the wake of Tesla’s Autopilot demonstrating its ability to pull a Model S over to the side of the road if the driver passes out or falls asleep, Elon Musk says that the company “hustled” to release Autopilot Version 1 after an accident involving a Tesla vehicle that killed a cyclist.
The driver of that vehicle, who fell asleep at the wheel, actually did sue Tesla, saying that the “new car smell” lulled him to sleep. As far as lawsuits go, that one was an easy win for the company, since millions of drivers operate brand-new vehicles before the new car smell even wears off every year and don’t fall asleep at the wheel.
Elon Musk says that the company will fight the cases in which it is in the right rather than hand those who file a frivolous or obviously bogus lawsuit an easy settlement. In cases like a recent battery throttling class-action lawsuit that was filed in a D.C. court, however, Musk doesn’t mind admitting it when Tesla might have been in the wrong.
Even though Tesla won that particular lawsuit, Musk pushed to accelerate the development of Autopilot to help drivers handle conditions and driving tasks that are boring and might lull them to sleep. According to a National Sleep Foundation study in 2005, as much as 60% of drivers have reported driving while drowsy, which increases their risk of falling asleep at the wheel. They may also experience a condition known as “highway hypnosis,” in which a driver might start to feel drowsy or enter a trance-like state when driving for long periods of time. Some drivers who experience this condition may even report not remembering driving entire stretches of their route afterward. Most drivers’ education programs will recommend taking frequent breaks when traveling on a long road trip to avoid highway hypnosis.
Musk says that Autopilot was meant to help drivers handle some of the tedium that could lead to highway hypnosis and the increased risk of falling asleep while driving, though of course Tesla includes the disclaimer that drivers should stay alert while driving even with Autopilot engaged. Autopilot can be used for tasks like lane-keeping and necessary lane changes to make that exit on the highway. It also includes Smart Summon for occasions in which you may not remember where your parked or want your car to pick you up in the parking lot.
To combat news outlets’ presentation of Autopilot as unsafe, Tesla frequently releases a Vehicle Safety Report, including statistics for Autopilot. This report is generated using data that Autopilot and Full Self-Driving send back to Tesla’s supercomputers, which includes usage logs. The logs were recently used to prove that Autopilot had not been active at the time of a fatal crash in Texas in April even though authorities initially believed that it had been.
According to statistics in the Q1 2021 Vehicle Safety Report, there had been only one crash for each 4.19 million miles in which Autopilot is engaged. According to NHTSA data, there is an average of one vehicle crash for every 484,000 miles driven.