When staying awake to drive is too burdensome

August 27, 2019

Wendy Parker


Cambridge (online) Dictionary defines the word “autopilot” as thus: A device that keeps aircraft, spacecraft, and ships moving in a particular direction without human involvement. That’s pretty standard, however, the example sentence Cambridge uses bears to be noted. “The plane was on autopilot when it crashed.”

Keep that in mind.

A video began circulating through news outlets last week of a guy asleep at the wheel of his Tesla. He also happened to be traveling at somewhere around 70 mph and there was no indication of intelligent life in the vehicle until the driver appeared to startle awake and grab the wheel.

Even then, the intelligent life claim is dubious. All signs the autopilot feature was in use were present by the fact that he didn’t crash into someone in the other five lanes of traffic he was sharing on a public highway in California.

You know, the people who were awake and driving around with their children and stuff.

The Tesla website describes autopilot a little different than Cambridge.  https://www.tesla.com/autopilot

Autopilot advanced safety and convenience features are designed to assist you with the most burdensome parts of driving. Autopilot introduces new features and improves existing functionality to make your Tesla safer and more capable over time.

Autopilot enables your car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically within its lane.

Current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.

Clearly, there’s some confusion here. Besides the fact that it’s against the law to sleep while driving in pretty much every place humans are allowed to drive (that I’m aware of), Tesla describes Autopilot as something that does indeed require human intervention.

Perhaps they should change the spelling of their autopilot feature to an “ought-to pilot” feature, as in, “You ought-to wake up and pilot your own car or take a train, friend.”

Or maybe they should be more specific about the “burdensome” parts of driving a moving vehicle, like remaining conscious.

Thankfully, there were no crashes this time. We can assume the autopilot feature worked as a deterrent to avoid what might have been another type of news story altogether. The trucking industry is all too familiar with crashes involving Tesla vehicles.

The terms surrounding autonomous vehicle technology are often confusing. The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) provides a guide established by the Society of Automotive Engineers regarding the six levels of automation on their website. According to this guidance, modern vehicles are currently equipped with up to Level 3, described as “conditional automation.”

An Automated Driving System on the vehicle can itself perform all aspects of the driving task under some circumstances. In those circumstances, the human driver must be ready to take back control at any time when the ADS requests the human driver to do so. In all other circumstances, the human driver performs the driving task.

Regardless of how space-age your vehicle is, the fact remains that it’s still illegal to sleep while driving. It’s also very distracting to look over at the driver next to you and realize they’re sawing logs, no matter how far technology has come.

Stay conscious, my friends.