A Wilson Times Co. publication · Serving Southern Nash County Since 1947

'Autopilot' features can help reduce crashes, but they're no substitute for driver attention

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While Tesla autopilot crashes grab headlines and top-of-the-hour television coverage, statistics show vehicles equipped with driver help features actually go six times further without a wreck than unassisted human drivers. 

Last week, a doctor watching a movie in his Tesla while the car sped down U.S. 64 smashed into a stopped Nash County Sheriff’s Office cruiser, according to authorities.

Devainder Goli of Raleigh faces charges of failure to move over for an emergency vehicle and watching television while driving a vehicle.

Goli drove his Tesla in autopilot mode while watching a movie on his smartphone, according to the N.C. Highway Patrol. Autopilot is a driver assistance feature similar to enhanced cruise control. A Tesla equipped with the technology isn’t a fully self-driving car. 

A deputy and state trooper were knocked to the ground but weren’t injured in the Aug. 26 crash, according to a Highway Patrol dispatcher.

Nash County Sheriff Keith Stone said crashes like this demonstrate the importance of North Carolina’s move-over law. 

“This could have been much worse,” Stone said. “God was watching over our people.”

The sheriff’s office posted about the incident on its Facebook page.

“Thankfully, our deputy and the trooper were not injured during this incident,” the post reads. “This is just another opportunity to remind everyone of the move-over law in North Carolina. Also, we don’t recommend watching a movie while driving down the road, even if your car is driving for you.”

The wreck occurred after midnight on U.S. 64 near mile marker 440 east of Zebulon near the Nash-Franklin county line. A deputy and a state trooper were responding to a previous collision when Goli’s vehicle struck the deputy’s cruiser, sending it crashing into the trooper’s vehicle.

Goli is an emergency medicine specialist associated with several hospitals in the region, according to Halifax Regional Medical Center.

N.C. General Statute 120-136.1 states that it’s unlawful to “drive any motor vehicle on a public street while viewing any television, computer or video player that is located at any point forward of the back of the driver’s seat, or that is visible to the driver while operating the vehicle.”

As far as the autopilot feature, Tesla has offered information that its drivers still need to monitor the road when they’re behind the wheel. The car is able to steer, speed up and brake by itself, but has trouble when something out of the ordinary — such as an emergency vehicle — is in the road. 

In mid-July, the Arizona Department of Public Safety released information about a 23-year-old man thought to be intoxicated and using his Tesla’s autopilot mode crashing into a trooper’s patrol vehicle and an ambulance on Interstate 10.

Reports don’t indicate any serious injuries in the wreck, but fatalities involving Tesla cars in autopilot mode have occurred.

Tesla released statistics earlier this year showing when autopilot is engaged, Tesla vehicles travel further without a wreck at six times the national average.

“In the second quarter, we registered one accident for every 4.53 million miles driven in which drivers had Autopilot engaged. For those driving without Autopilot but with our active safety features, we registered one accident for every 2.27 million miles driven. For those driving without Autopilot and without our active safety features, we registered one accident for every 1.56 million miles driven,” the carmaker’s report states. 

Tesla cited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data showing the average U.S. crash occurs every 479,000 miles.