Tesla Owner Lets Autopilot Drive, Gets Banned from the Road

A Tesla owner in the UK has pushed the company’s controversial Autopilot feature back into the spotlight by turning it on and getting in the front passenger seat of his Tesla Model S 60.

Bhavesh Patel was going about 40 MPH on a busy motorway near Hemel Hempstead, England, on May 21, 2017, when a rider in a passing car shot video of him sitting on the passenger side of the Tesla with no one in the driver’s seat, according to a news release from the Hertfordshire Constabulary.

After the video was posted on social media, Patel was prosecuted and banned from driving for 18 months after pleading guilty earlier this month. He was also sentenced to 100 hours of community service and ordered to pay costs of 1,800 pounds, or nearly $2,500.

Patel, 39, told the court he knew the stunt was “silly” but he wanted to show off the car’s abilities and just happened to be the unlucky driver who got caught doing it.

Autopilot can steer a Tesla in some situations, but it’s not a full self-driving system. The manufacturer warns drivers they need to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. The driver needs to tap a screen to agree to this every time they turn on the feature, the company notes.

Still, the system seems to be getting some Tesla owners in trouble.

Patel may have been the first Tesla driver caught getting into the passenger seat, but others have found ways to stop their cars from warning them to pay attention. One driver wedged an orangein the steering wheel to simulate his hand gripping the wheel.

Technology to make sure drivers are paying attention is advancing along with driver assistance systems. The Cadillac CT6, the first car with the company’s Super Cruise automation system, also includes a head-tracking system to detect whether the driver is watching the road.

But improper use of partial self-driving systems has also led to tragedy in some cases, fueling a larger debate over whether drivers can be trusted with partial this technology – which may become widespread long before fully autonomous vehicles are commonly seen.

The controversy heated up after a fatal crash of a Tesla Model X in March, which is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Before that car crashed into a freeway lane divider in California, the driver had turned on Autopilot and ignored multiple warnings to put his hands back on the wheel, Tesla says. In 2016, a Tesla Model S was involved in a fatal crash in Florida, also after the driver had activated Autopilot and ignored warnings to put his hands back on the wheel. The NTSB concluded that the company was partly to blame for selling a technology that could easily be abused.

Tesla’s Autopilot website includes a warning that drivers need to pay attention and have their hands on the wheel, but it emphasizes the feature’s eventual evolution into an autonomous driving system, saying Teslas are already being built with self-driving hardware.

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