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Driving Distracted While AutoPilot, and the Dangerous Brinksmanship that Goes With It

ANALYSIS AND OPINION: I wonder if the people who are caught red handed being “distracted while AutoPilot” realize how lucky they are they got away with their crime. Unlike the people who I last wrote about who face the wrath of the NTSB and the courts for their tort who proclaim “my Tesla did it, not me,” “driving distracted while AutoPilot” is a crime of reckless endangerment, and most are getting away with it without realizing it.
Posted: February 3, 2019 - 5:45AM
Author: Al Castro

Yet another man was recently caught on video published by Jalopnik, this time in what appears to be taking a nap at the wheel of his Tesla Model X while the car was apparently engaged in AutoPilot, the safety features somehow apparently disabled, and him sitting there in a reclined position eyes closed, nose in the air. There are two most irritating “things Tesla” that a few owners do that bother the hell out of me, and those things are so dangerous that the abusers don’t realize how their passive brinkmanship can be so dangerous if not deadly in their careless recklessness. The passive potentially deadly vehicular weaponization occurs before a crash by turning almost a blind eye while engaged in cruise control, the lame fourth grade grammar school child’s excuse that’s used usually after, in front of witnesses of people like a state trooper or an NTSB investigator. They say “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and if that’s true, then especially when those same hands are behind a steering wheel to a vehicle, activating sophisticated adaptive cruise control:

  • In 2016, according to the NHTSA the National Highway Transportation Safety Board, 3,450 people died in the US from distracted driving.
  • In 2015, 391,000 injuries occurred with distracted driving.
  • Distracted driving accounts for 25% of fatal motor vehicle crashes.
  • That’s one out of four fatal accidents is a distracted driving one.
  • Every day about 9 people are killed in the US from distracted driving accidents.
  • For defensive driving techniques there’s the 3 second rule following behind.
  • Now there’s a new 2 second rule: 2 seconds of eyes off the road can lead to an accident.
  • Over 80% of driver samplers readily admitted they do blatantly hazardous behavior from nail varnish, shaving, to some kind of sexual activity while driving.
  • Remember that if you drive something sophisticated adaptive cruise control, your car like A TESLA IS NOT AN AUTONOMOUS CAR!!!
  • When I mean “sophisticated adaptive cruise control,” I mean the kind that is using AI technology that will be used for autonomous cars, like GM Cruise, Mercedes-Benz Distronic PLUS (it must be the PLUS not the whatever else kind), and Tesla AutoPilot, etc.
  • Just because a car has AI technology that is going to be used for autonomy, DOES NOT MAKE IT AN AUTONOMOUS VEHICLE YET.
  • Even if the car is missing one part, one software update, that when added makes it “autonomous acting,” IT IS STILL NOT AUTONOMOUS, even if YOU add the missing piece. It must be certified, like an aircraft must have a certificate of airworthiness, otherwise you are breaking the law.
  • Unless by an act of Congress, or at the state level, a state legislature enactment giving someone or another body the authority for determination, an official autonomous vehicle certification is what the Society of Automotive Engineers say it is, NOT based on what you determine by their scale (it’s only a reference scale).
  • Just because a car has a SAE Autonomy Scale rating does not make it autonomous. My car would be zero-0. It is not autonomous.
  • Anything below an SAE rating of 4 is not an autonomous vehicle.
  • 5 is neutered no traditional pedal/steering controls. 4 is drives like a regular car but can function like 5. 3 is Audi A8 but that’s on sale but really experimental. 2 to 3 is AutoPilot. I own a BMW 328i. That’s zero 0.
  • If you engage in an accident and you tell police or they eventually find out that you had activated sophisticated adaptive cruise control, they’re going to notify the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Crash Team to respond and investigate your accident.

“Driving distracted while AutoPilot” (DDWA) is weaponizing a vehicle that every state legislature should make law-specific other than reckless endangerment and then charge an offender with both. Using a Tesla like it is a level 4 autonomy vehicle WHICH IT IS NOT, and not paying attention, turns a vehicle that merely has a gimmicky adaptive cruise control feature with a gimmicky name into a potential non-gimmicky instrument of death. I address this asinine behavior that unfortunately drags the entire Tesla community down and we really do need to police ourselves about these things. The police can only do so much until after it’s too late.

The Car as a Weapon Should be First Used as a Tool

First let’s talk about what should be the consequence if you are found violating Tesla’s usage terms, and that should start with the vehicle itself. I’m assuming police and prosecutors will take care of our laws. Driving a Tesla product really should be treated like a privilege, not an entitlement, regardless of model range, and either the car should be taken away either by the law or Tesla (especially so if by lease or subscription), or some of the features purposely deactivated when one is found to be in violation of Tesla terms of agreement and/or usage of their products. Tesla could do this if they wanted to, and really they should, for incidents like these. Whether you buy a brand new, certified pre-owned, lease, subscription if or when that ever comes, and now just an out of the used market, a vintage legacy Tesla product, unlike other luxury legacy brands like Rolls Royce, you are buying a piece of perpetual luxury and technology that’ll in some ways for now will never become outdated. Getting a Tesla product with Level 4 autonomous capability (carefully noted see below) which most late model Teslas have, should most definitely apply here. Note I wrote capable, which means able to have, but not currently, which also means, that on the SAE Autonomy scale a current Tesla is stuck incidentally or purposely between Level 2 and 3 because:

A TESLA IS NOT AN AUTONOMOUS CAR. Lets be clear: the equipment may be compatible/capable of autonomy, but there is nothing autonomous about a Tesla vehicle as they are now on the road, and this is where the problem starts. This is like having the frame to a single action firearm revolver without the firing pin and the hammer spur that comes with it. As long as you have that, you don’t have a gun that works. You can certainly pick it up and it may or may not sound like a gun with the trigger clicking, it may look like a gun to a lay person, and in that, it makes it easily dangerous if it isn’t used properly/lawfully.

As I like to say, Tesla AutoPilot is a gimmicky name for a gimmicky adaptive cruise control system. I cause such a upset when I use “gimmicky;” too bad. It should make the point: the reasons why it has that name and the features it does, is to sell the car, it isn’t a bad thing, it is what it is. Autonomy it is not, and that’s the point. Tesla is giving us a little flavor, a bit too much if you ask me, but you have to start somewhere. Folks, it still isn’t a smorgasbord the way some reckless people are treating it. These are the problems we’re having now with this AI tech, I dare not hold my breath when it is fully unleashed!

We really do need to hurry up people’s grasp of not only the technology, but also of the consequences when it is improperly, most especially recklessly or irresponsibly used. And we need to foster an environment where ethics, responsibility, accountability, and especially consideration of other people takes priority. Luxury so intertwined with public safety really should come hand in hand. We need to teach good habits. We’re not doing a good job of that.

‘Welcome to the world of Tesla. We hope you enjoy. Upon purchase and continued responsible use, you have access to Tesla’s luxury features and services.’ That’s the premise that should be the foundation of using Tesla goods and services. You can perhaps put a camper or sentry mode software update, or add additional OEM settings or features, or use the purpose built sole branded car charger network built exclusively for the brand, the app services that come with all this, and do all this on a 12 year old Model S, things you just can’t do with a 12 year old Phantom in the Rolls universe, and I even doubt a Rolls owner will be able to after their electrification process is finished.

Some of Tesla’s warranties extend for 8 years without paying any extra money for coverage. The drivetrain may go up to a million miles. Rolls Royce gives you four years or 48,000 miles from delivery date, including the first four years of free maintenance last time I checked for their custom made cars. That’s my point, there’s a lot of goods and services that Tesla provides that legacies just don’t, and way after the warranty expires which still incentivizes ownership. We need to take advantage of those features to police the community and it starts with Tesla doing the policing themselves first.

If Amazon can find ways to easily suspend your membership, if Facebook easily finds ways to suspend your Timeline, if you are found to be distracted driving, Tesla should send an update cancelling your adaptive cruise control features. Period. Notice sent by mail.

The People Who Drive Them

So while Tesla ends its referral program and has paired back the charging privileges, Tesla in many ways is still with you, and they really should use these features to police the community, especially for the kinds of customers Tesla has. Based on what I see on my social media most Tesla owners are successful, ambitious, and educated professional people who are good at what they do in their industries, usually on the progressive side of their politics, want to help the environment by driving a cleaner vehicle, want to save money in fuel costs, but they have a type A approach to certain things, especially when it comes to their car, and they certainly have an opinion about that to be at times defensive about them. Most importantly however, most Tesla owners are responsible citizens. The mere fact they are the first ones to own an electric car in a 2% market industry with their vehicle akin to luxury, makes them upstanding citizens in a very exclusive club, and it is a force for good, not evil.

But there also is an element of ownership that lends itself to a sense of entitlement, that their Tesla is a purchase, which gives them the right to use their vehicle in a manner they see fit so as long as no one gets hurt. These are the people that need a reason to comply or concur, even if that reason is not conventional thinking, whether they’re aware of the train of thought or not. This can be dangerous to first themselves and then others. These are the people I’m going after. The problem is that they passively set themselves up in a situation where someone potentially can get hurt. They’re more concerned if someone actually does. But that’s not the point and their passive recklessness is still dangerous. It’s not just about no one actually getting hurt, it is also about setting up the risk where this can happen. That’s equally if not more important that these people seem to miss. And when someone is hurt, that situation lends itself for using the excuse it was the car’s fault, not the owner or driver.

To My Dear “Distracted Driving While AutoPilot” People

Until the day that the US Department of Transportation issues a bulletin, more probably when Congress enacts a law allowing full autonomy on interstate travel, it is illegal and dangerous to try to pretend your vehicle is autonomous; it is not. Doing this kind of behavior is the equivalent to reckless endangerment which is creating a substantial risk of injury or death while doing an act to such a degree that the risk is augmented. Reckless driving is usually a vehicle or traffic code violation, and that’s about operating a motor vehicle in an unsafe manner. The last charge that would occur here is for the one that the driver committed while committing the above two offenses. Someone could be charged with vehicular: assault, manslaughter, or homicide, depending on the severity of injury or circumstances of the death. This can all happen by just sitting there, with eyes closed, not paying attention, and/or letting the car drive without help, or the way it is supposed to be driven. By your passivity, you are creating substantial risk that a human being should know and is expected to know, can cause injury, even death. This is the selfish act you commit against others on the road.

And also importantly, you are doing something else that is also a selfish act not considerate of your fellow members of the community that you share your vehicle with: by your passive act of driving down a road as if you are driving on cruise control toward a death wish, either someone else’s or yours, you are enabling the possibility of the powers that be by either restricting or taking this technology away from all Tesla owners or all adaptive cruise control users if not future autonomous vehicles users, if not delaying its deployment. Your conduct clearly shows you are not deserving to be in this special exclusive League of Tesla Owners whose demographics and level of commitment to their vehicles and the cause by which gives them reason to use their vehicles. You really should be banned from use and ownership.

So I’m left to tell you something similar to what I told the “My Tesla did it, not me” people in the end of that story. To the “distracted driving while AutoPilot” people: stop acting like a child, in this case a selfish one, and GROW UP.

This is your car. No one else’s.

Now own it.

Or do us all a favor and get rid of it, in fact let me know if you don’t want it anymore and I’ll be glad to sell it for you on my large media platform so we can all take it off your irresponsible hands.

Photo is a screenshot from the original source of the story about the man caught sleeping behind the wheel of a Model X Tesla. The screenshot is published here and all under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, and news reporting.

UPDATED NOTICE: I am so grateful that my publisher allows me the generous privilege within reason to express my opinions about matters related to the auto industry. I try to be judicious and respectful about the content. I ask you do the same in the comments section by refraining from inappropriate language and content. Please be nice, there’s no reason to get nasty, this is only about cars. The irony is if you came up on me on the street to recognize me I’d grab a beer with you and we’d talk about cars for me to thank you for being a reader! I hear some of you, I get it, my content is longer, I do that for Google rankings. But you matter to me more, and I’ve acquired a large following that I shouldn’t worry about that, so I’m peeling back length so you won’t get upset, okay? Please forgive me. And please keep in mind that the opinions expressed here are solely mine, and not those of Hareyan Publishing or its employees, including my staff colleagues.

Al Castro is a security expert and a retired LEO who is a staff and opinion piece writer on electric and autonomous vehicles for Torque News.

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