In the United States, more than 10,000 people die in vehicle crashes in which drunk driving was a factor every year. In Norway, about 8 percent of vehicle crashes involve a drunk driver. So it may make sense that a fully autonomous self-driving vehicle could save lives if it ever becomes a reality.
Tesla’s Autopilot did exactly that when it detected that the driver of a Model S in Norway had a little too much to drink and passed out while behind the wheel. The Autopilot was able to stay in the vehicle’s lane until it was safe to pull over and engaged the vehicle’s hazard lights until emergency services could get to his location.
Tesla had recently activated an interior camera mounted to the rearview mirror for vehicle owners who use Autopilot or Full Self-Driving. This is meant to monitor driver alertness as a response to recent incidents involving crashes in which the software was engaged and Tesla owners who were seen riding in the back seat of a vehicle with Autopilot engaged.
The company has also issued multiple warnings that Autopilot and Full Self-Driving are not yet ready for fully autonomous operation and drivers should remain alert. It has kicked people out of the Full Self-Driving beta program for relying too much on the software while driving. Tesla recently added new experimental features in its most recent beta update, FSD Beta 9.1. This includes some new features for off-highway driving.
Future updates could include recognition of hand signals, emergency vehicle lights, and turn signals, all important features now that Tesla has decided to rely on an all-camera sensor system for its less expensive vehicle models.
Although Consumer Reports did gripe that the interior cameras can cause privacy concerns for Tesla vehicle owners, this incident demonstrates the value of the interior cameras in making sure that unconscious, unalert, or “wasted” drivers pose less of a danger on the road. The software could have reacted the same if the driver was overtired and fell asleep at the wheel or was spending a lot of time playing with his phone while behind the wheel. The Autopilot can simply detect that the driver may not be capable of operating a vehicle safely and pull over, potentially saving thousands of lives every year.
In this particular case, the Tesla Model S owner’s driver’s license was suspended, and a case has been filed against him, although he denies that he was driving at the time. (Well, it is a little hard to drive when you’re unconscious.) The Model S didn’t have access to the Full Self-Driving beta, though it performed respectably well in getting the Model S out of the way of other vehicles on the road when it detected that the driver was no longer in control of the vehicle.
Really, though? Don’t drink and drive even if you do have Autopilot. You don’t need to add to the statistics of people who were killed in a crash in which drunk driving was a factor.