THE OWNER of a Tesla Model S who was caught on camera using his car’s self-driving Autopilot function while sitting in the passenger seat, while travelling at speed on the M1 motorway, says he is “the unlucky one who got caught”.
The admission, from Bhavesh Patel, who was banned from driving for 18 months, suggests he believes other owners of Tesla cars have pulled the dangerous stunt.
Tesla’s Autopilot system does not give cars fully autonomous, self-driving capabilities. When activated, it can accelerate, brake and steer the vehicle, under certain conditions, but in the UK the driver is required by law to remain in control of the vehicle at all times and must keep their hands on the steering wheel.
Patel, from Nottingham pleaded guilty to dangerous driving at St Albans Crown Court, and admitted he had been ‘silly’.
A passenger of a passing vehicle had spotted the Tesla driving in traffic with nobody at the steering wheel. Patel was said to have been sitting in the passenger seat, with his hands behind his head.
They filmed the incident, which was posted to social media and soon went viral. Hertfordshire Constabulary spotted the offence and issued a Notice of Intended Prosecution.
The dangerous stunt also was saw Patel hit with 100 hours of unpaid work, 10 days rehabilitation and £1,800 in costs to the Crown Prosecution Service.
PC Kirk Caldicutt, the investigating officer, said Patel’s behaviour could have “ended in tragedy”.
He said: “He not only endangered his own life but the lives of other innocent people using the motorway on that day.
“This case should serve as an example to all drivers who have access to Autopilot controls and have thought about attempting something similar.
“I want to stress that they are in no way a substitute for a competent motorist in the driving seat.”
Other Tesla owners go hands-free
Driving.co.uk found other examples of such stunts as several drivers have filmed themselves using Tesla’s Autopilot system while they have been in the passenger seat, or not in control of the vehicle.
In one video, an owner films the car in self-driving mode as they sit in the back seat. In another, a driver turns on Autopilot, then moves to the passenger seat, and the car parks itself despite the fact nobody is ready to take control in the event of danger. And in a third film, a couple can be seen playing cards and pretending to sleep, paying little attention to their surroundings.
In America, there have been several fatal accidents involving Tesla cars that were being operated in Autopilot mode.
In late March, 38-year old Walter Huang was killed when his Model X, operating in Autopilot mode, left the Californian freeway lane it was travelling in and struck a crash barrier and concrete dividing wall.
And in 2016, in Florida, 40-year old Joshua Brown was killed after his Model S’ Autopilot system failed to recognise a truck which pulled across his path.
After Brown’s crash, the US National Transportation Safety Board said Tesla’s Autopilot was partly to blame, and added that Tesla “lacked understanding” of the system’s limitations.
As long ago as 2015, The Sunday Times reported on how during its tests, a Tesla Model S tried to pull into the path of a faster car approaching from its rear, when performing a lane-change.
“Be prepared to take corrective action at all times”
When asked for comment, a Tesla spokesperson pointed to a statement from a Tesla engineer, obtained by officers investigating the Patel case, that described Autopilot as a “suite of driver assistance features”.
The engineer stated that the system involves “hands-on” features intended to provide assistance to a “fully-attentive driver”.
They stated that Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC) assists with acceleration and deceleration of the vehicle while Autosteer provides assistance with steering of the vehicle.
Further literature provided by Tesla explains that drivers should “never depend on TACC to adequately slow down model S, always watch the road in front of you and be prepared to take corrective action at all times. Failure to do so can result in serious injury or death”.