Tesla owner attempts Autopilot defense during DUI stop

Driving drunk is still illegal, even with a driver-assistance system active.




California Highway Patrol

A San Francisco Tesla owner has learned the hard way that Tesla's Autopilot feature does not excuse getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. On Saturday, January 13, police discovered a man in his Tesla vehicle on the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. The San Francisco Chronicle reportsthat "the man had apparently passed out in the stopped car while stuck in the flow of busy bridge traffic at 5:30pm, according to the California Highway Patrol."

When police woke the man up, he assured officers that everything was fine because the car was "on autopilot." No one was injured in the incident, and the California Highway Patrol made a snarky tweet about it:

CHP San Francisco @CHPSanFrancisco

When u pass out behind the wheel on the Bay Bridge with more than 2x legal alcohol BAC limit and are found by a CHP Motor. Driver explained Tesla had been set on autopilot. He was arrested and charged with suspicion of DUI. Car towed (no it didn’t drive itself to the tow yard).

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Needless to say, other Tesla owners—and people who own competing systems like Cadillac's Super Cruise—should not follow this guy's example. No cars on the market right now have fully driverless technology available. Autopilot, Supercruise, and other products are driver assistance products—they're designed to operate with an attentive human driver as a backup. Driving drunk using one of these systems is just as illegal as driving drunk in a conventional car.

It is possible that the Autopilot feature saved the man's life—or the lives of others on the road at the time. Autopilot requires the driver to keep his hands on the wheel. If the driver ignores the car's warnings to put his hands back on the wheel, it will come to a gradual stop. This could explain how the car wound up stopped on the Bay Bridge. Blocking traffic is bad, but the outcome could have been even worse if he'd fallen asleep behind the wheel of a car with no driver-assistance features.

Of course, that doesn't justify getting behind the wheel drunk. Even with Autopilot engaged, driving drunk is illegal and dangerous. The man should have called a cab, gotten a ride with a friend, or taken transit to get home.

In the next couple of years, we might see Waymo, GM's Cruise, and other companies offer fully driverless car technologies. If those vehicles live up to the hype, then it really could be safe for people to get into those vehicles while intoxicated—though it might take time for state law to catch up.

TIMOTHY B. LEETimothy is a senior reporter covering tech policy, blockchain technologies and the future of transportation. He lives in Washington DC.
EMAIL timothy.lee@arstechnica.com // TWITTER @binarybits