At Water Gallery, we are huge supporters and admirers of creative innovation of all sorts and we believe that Elon Musk, creator of the incredible electric vehicle Tesla, is one of the greatest innovators of our time. Our choice to purchase a Tesla Model S has been one of the best decisions and investments we've ever made, both for our family and for the environment.
We have never driven a vehicle with capabilities even close to this amazing machine and the car continues to surprise and delight us. The technology is just mind-blowing, including the car's ability to essentially "drive itself" when commanded to do so.
When we were first test-driving the Model S, the sales person demonstrated how the Autopilot feature works. I happened to be behind the wheel at the time of this first test drive and Autopilot, wherein you basically press a button and allow the car to drive itself on the freeway (including steering, breaking, changing lanes when prompted, all while keeping in "mind" any other cars and barriers on the road), was extremely unnerving and counter-intuitive to me.
In other words, as soon as I activated it, I immediately wanted to de-activate it. I felt out of control and powerless. However, going against my instinct I allowed the Autopilot feature to take us a few miles and I soon realized that you are NOT fully sitting back and letting the car just drive itself.
You are periodically (every couple of minutes or so) required to physically touch the steering wheel while Autopilot is engaged, ensuring that you are not just checked out (falling asleep, playing a video game, or watching a movie, as was determined to be happening during the fatal crash that occurred earlier this year when a Tesla driver using Autopilot plowed into a tractor-trailer).
Autopilot is not meant to let drivers become completely passive and unaware of what their vehicle is doing. Drivers still need to be alert, paying attention, and cognizant of where their vehicle is going and what's happening. Autopilot's value, in my opinion, is its ability to give drivers a few moments to take a break from the monotony of highway driving or the rigors of stop-and-go traffic (although I believe you have to be going a certain minimum speed to initially activate Autopilot).
Tesla claims that only after millions of miles of being tested, including the company's own testers (Musk was among them) along with volunteer drivers, was Autopilot ready for release and that the software that is behind Autopilot ensures that when the feature is engaged and used correctly, it's safer than an actual human driver.
Although Autopilot has gotten some bad press and has its vehement critics, a Missouri man claims the feature is likely to have saved his life. Joshua Neally, a 37-year-old attorney, says he had started using Autopilot almost daily on his 45-minute commute while driving his new Tesla Model X (the SUV-crossover EV) to and from work.
Unlike the activities that may have lead to crashes while using Autopilot, such as watching movies or playing a game, Neally describes his use of Autopilot simply as a way to give his body and mind a break on his commute. He was not using it as a way to fully check out, which Tesla argues is not the purpose of Autopilot and, in fact, is a serious mis-use of the feature.
Neally was on his way home from work in his Tesla Model X in late July, with his Autopilot up and running, when he felt a stabbing pain start from his abdomen and rise up towards his throat. He managed to call his wife and, through gasping breaths, told her he was trying desperately to get to the hospital.
The Autopilot directed his vehicle to the hospital and Neally steered the last few moments through the parking lot, after which he was immediately treated in the ER and able to go home later that night. Turns out he had a potentially-fatal pulmonary embolism while in his car.
If he hadn't had Autopilot engaged, he may have crashed his vehicle while he writhed in pain in the driver's seat. Or if he had pulled over to the side of the road and waited for an ambulance, he might have lost crucial life-saving minutes. It's hard to say whether or not the Autopilot actually saved his life, but without a doubt it contributed to his chance of survival.
In conclusion, Autopilot is not a perfect system and, if not used correctly, it can kill. But when used correctly, it has potentially life-saving capabilities and it is certain that over time, it will only become a better system. We as drivers have to be proactive and alert no matter what...but with innovations like Autopilot, driving can become an even safer, more enjoyable, and more manageable way to travel.