Years ago, the promise of self-driving cars was once an idea seen only in science fiction films. Fully autonomous vehicles traveling at high speeds in complete concert with one another was something the average driver could only dream of, and in many ways, that’s still the case.
But with the advent of improved technology and consumer-driven desire for self-driving vehicles, the world of “I, Robot” is seemingly closer than ever — hopefully without the killer robots.
In a perfect world, self-driving vehicles would reduce traffic collisions, lead to fewer DUI arrests and allow for those who are unable to continue driving due to age or other factors to experience the freedom of the open road and the independence that a set of wheels affords.
But in 2023, it seems some vehicle owners, whose cars have their own primitive version of autonomy, are using the self-driving function to get in some extra Zzs.
Videos shared with KTLA in recent weeks have shown at least two owners of Tesla vehicles asleep behind the wheel. Another video shared in 2019 appeared to show the same.
Elon Musk’s technology driven company has been a leader and innovator in the autonomous vehicle sector, although some critics say the ambitious CEO has “over-promised” and “under-delivered” some lofty goals.
Some experts suggest that self-driving mode in Tesla vehicles are more of a novelty rather than full-fledged feature. Drivers who engage the system are urged to be fully involved in the driving process to take over at a moment’s notice. Tesla says the same in its Autopilot support page.
But the videos beg the question: if the vehicle is self-driving, does it matter if the “driver” is conscious or not?
A California law firm suggests that there is no law on the books that explicitly states that it is illegal to fall asleep behind the wheel, meaning if you accidentally doze off while driving drowsy, and nothing bad happens, you probably won’t be charged. It’s when something bad happens while you sleep that charges come into play.
But the California Highway Patrol says otherwise.
In an email responding to an inquiry by KTLA, CHP spokesperson April Elliott said a whole slew of charges could come up if a person is caught sleeping behind the wheel.
California Vehicle Code explicitly states that it’s illegal for a person to operate a vehicle in a way that endangers the safety of other people or property. It also states that a person who does so willingly is guilty of reckless driving.
Those rules can be applied to drowsy driving, but the idea appears applicable to situations like those Tesla drivers.
By sleeping behind the wheel of your self-driving vehicle, CHP argues that you are taking an unnecessary risk that puts the lives of others in danger and therefore are driving recklessly.
“Regardless of any special features a vehicle may possess such as autopilot or fully autonomous capabilities, drivers are still responsible for the vehicle they are operating. If a driver is asleep behind the wheel they are in violation of California’s basic speed law,” CHP says. “It is unsafe to operate/drive a vehicle at any speed while asleep behind the wheel.”
The penalty for being caught sleeping at the wheel could also lead to the CHP requesting the Department of Motor Vehicles to “re-evaluate” the capability and fitness of the driver. One of the behaviors the DMV will consider is whether or not a driver has a tendency to fall asleep while driving.
So while there might not be specific language in California Vehicle Code that says it’s illegal to sleep while in the driver’s seat of an autonomous vehicle, existing laws probably have that covered.
Instead of putting yours and other people’s lives in the hands of some unproven technology, CHP said you should solve the root problem: if you’re too tired to drive, don’t.
“CHP recommends avoiding driving if you are at all fatigued,” Elliott said. “If you begin to experience any drowsiness, pull off the highway and find a safe location to rest or change drivers.”