Although he was a Tesla driver himself in the past, Kenosha County Sheriff’s Deputy David Gomez said he would never trust technology enough to sleep behind the wheel.
“Inattentive driving means you are not watching the road,” he said. “Your eyes are not on the road, and that’s always going to be in effect, in my opinion, as a deputy. Watch the road, never let technology take over.”
Gomez was on patrol Sunday morning when he received a call from dispatch about a Tesla driver on northbound Interstate 94 who appeared to be asleep behind the wheel. According to Gomez, another driver had noticed the Tesla owner with his head back and his mouth open, apparently sleeping as he headed over the Illinois state line toward Milwaukee.
“She kept honking her horn at him, and still no reaction, so she decided to call it in,” Gomez said.
The deputy caught up with the driver near Highway 158 and pulled into the lane next to him so he could look into the car. The man’s head was slumped over to the side. Gomez pulled behind the driver and turned on his lights and sirens.
“For about 2.2 miles, I had no reaction from the driver, lights and sirens going, different pitches, different sounds, still no reaction,” Gomez said.
All the while, the Tesla was travelling at just over 80 miles per hour, staying in its lane. The deputy again pulled next to the vehicle to look in, his sirens still activated, and the driver woke up and pulled over near Highway KR.
Gomez said the driver, a 38-year-old Palatine, Ill. man, told him he was headed to work in Cudahy where he is employed as a delivery driver. The dash screen on the vehicle showed it was in autopilot mode.
The deputy said the history on the vehicle showed that twice before in the last year, other drivers had called 911 to report that it appeared the driver of the same Tesla was asleep while traveling on I-94.
In one of those cases, Gomez said, a deputy who caught up with the car saw the driver was awake and did not stop the car. In another, the Tesla passed south into Illinois before the deputy pursuing could pull it over.
Gomez said the man insisted he was not asleep.
“I said, ‘Sir, I followed you for 2 1/2 miles. In my opinion, you were sleeping,’” Gomez said.
After ticketing the Palatine man for inattentive driving, Gomez said he made the decision to drop the man off at a service station to be picked up rather than let him get back behind the wheel. He said that decision was based on safety concerns because of the past calls involving the car and about the man’s apparent lack of recollection that he was sleeping.
Gomez, who has been a deputy for 16 years, said he himself owned an older-model Tesla, but said it was not equipped with autopilot. Tesla introduced autopilot in 2019.
“The current enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the company website warns.
The vehicles have been involved in a number of crashes while in autopilot mode. In May, a man was killed in a California crash when his Tesla crashed into an overturned truck while on autopilot. The truck driver and another person who had stopped to help him were injured in the crash.
On Monday in Washington state, a Tesla that may have been on autopilot, according to the Associated Press, crashed into a parked squad car. And last month in Texas, two people were killed when a Tesla crashed into a tree and exploded in flames. Although law enforcement there told reporters that no one was in the driver’s seat of the vehicle when it crashed, Tesla officials have disputed that.
Gomez said whatever technology is available to drivers, he believes they should keep their eyes on the road, saying that when he saw the driver sleeping on the interstate he thought, “Is this really happening?”
“To not be aware of a vehicle, I don’t know if I could trust technology that much,” Gomez said.