avatarby Nick HallAugust 10, 20160 comments

Tesla’s Autopilot has taken some stick of late, but it might just have saved the life of a Missouri man who was struck down by a pulmonary embolism on the highway.

Joshua Neally was on his way home from his law office in his Model X when he was hit by a massive pain in his chest. “It was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever had,” he told KY3 News. “It was kinda getting scary. I called my wife and just said: ‘something’s wrong,’ I just knew I had to get to the ER.”

It was a blocked artery in his lung, which can often prove fatal.

Autopilot takes the wheel

The 37-year-old then took the decision to hand over the controls to the car for the 20-mile highway stint that separated him from the nearest emergency room. Tesla’s Autopilot kept him in his lane during the incident and all the way to the off-ramp, where he took control of the car and drove through the pain to reach the hospital.

He accepts that he should have pulled over to the side of the road and called an ambulance. But then every minute can make the difference between life and death when you’re dealing with a pulmonary embolism. In this instance, Autopilot helped him get to the hospital.

Tesla Autopilot could have saved a man's life Tesla

It knows when you are sleeping

Tesla’s Autopilot has a simple requirement: you have to touch the wheel every few minutes to let the car know you’re awake and part of the equation. If you don’t, then it pulls to the side of the road and stops safely. That built-in function gave Neally the confidence to carry on.

He said: “If something like that happens where I become unconscious or incapacitated while I’m driving, I’m not going to cross over the interstate and slam into somebody or slam into one of the big rock walls.”

Autopilot has come under fire in recent times and the highest profile case involves a Florida man who was killed while watching a DVD. The sensors on the car simply didn’t see the truck turning in front of him and he effectively drove straight underneath a tractor-trailer.

Two separate investigations to contend with

In July there were two more incidents involving Autopilot and the incident in Florida sparked a federal investigation. The Securities and Exchange Commission have also posed some difficult questions as it wants to know if Tesla should have disclosed the accident earlier than July.

Tesla boss Elon Musk stands by the product, though, and argues that the Autopilot system is safer than having a human behind the wheel.

“When used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability,” he said.

Will the Model 3 take control?

Musk recently said that Level 4 autonomous driving will be with us sooner than we think and there is a growing belief that the hardware will be installed on the Model 3, which will go on sale late next year. The regulators won’t approve fully autonomous cars by then, of course, but the cars will be just a firmware update away from taking control.

The negative press certainly hasn’t helped Musk’s cause. A few stories like this one, though, might sway public opinion back in Autopilot’s favour.

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