Police in California on Friday arrested a 45-year-old man who was spotted by officers cruising in a Tesla Model S down highway 101, fast asleep behind the wheel, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s unclear if the car was in Autopilot mode at the time, but authorities believe that had to be the case, as it took seven minutes, over several miles, to successfully stop the Model S.
Tesla couldn’t immediately say Monday whether Autopilot had been engaged at the time, but if that’s indeed the case, it could wind up as an example of where the semi-autonomous driving system may have saved someone’s life. But it underscores concerns raised by safety advocates about how that technology is utilized by drivers.
The Chronicle reported that the driver, Alexander Samek, had been detained on suspicion of drunken driving, after police spotted his gray Model S around 3:30 a.m., driving southbound on Highway 101 at 70 miles per hour.
Here’s how the effort to stop the car went down, per the Chronicle:
When officers pulled up next to the car, they allegedly saw Samek asleep, but the car was moving straight, leading them to believe it was in autopilot mode.
The officers slowed the car down after running a traffic break, with an officer behind Samek turning on emergency lights before driving across all lanes of the highway, in an S-shaped path, to slow traffic down behind the Tesla, Montiel said.
He said another officer drove a patrol car directly in front of Samek before gradually slowing down, prompting the Tesla to slow down as well and eventually come to a stop in the middle of the highway, north of the Embarcadero exit in Palo Alto — about 7 miles from where the stop was initiated.
Authorities said the entire operation took about seven minutes.
Samek didn’t comment on the situation to the Chronicle, only saying by phone: “I can’t talk right now.” What isn’t immediately clear is why, if he was asleep, Tesla’s Autopilot stayed engaged for as long as it did.
The way the system is designed, it’s supposed to detect if a driver’s hands are on the wheel, and, if they’re not, provide a series of warnings. If the driver provides no response at all, the car is supposed to start slowing down on its own within a few minutes, before coming to a complete stop and turning on its hazard lights.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said as much Sunday night, before adding that the automaker is “looking into what happened here.”
The California Highway Patrol, which conducted the arrest, summed up rather aptly how squishy this situation is. CHP Public Information Officer Art Montiel told the Mountain View Voice that police suspect Autopilot was engaged at the time, and reiterated a similar point that Tesla drivers are told to always pay attention to the road when using the system.
“It’s great that we have this technology; however, we need to remind people that ... even though this technology is available,” Montiel told the news outlet, “they need to make sure they know they are responsible for maintaining control of the vehicle.”