Yes, Abusing Autopilot IS Reckless Driving. Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Differently

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Let’s file this one under: “Things we shouldn’t have to tell people.” Yes, climbing out of the driver’s seat while Tesla Autopilot is engaged is reckless driving, by any definition. It should never be encouraged.

Normally, we wouldn’t have to explain stuff like this, but a popular personality in the Tesla fan community with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and YouTube (who is also a lawyer) had this to say:

Screenshot of Warren Redlich’s tweet (h/t to my friend Alex Roy)

Before I go on, I’d like to express how I feel about this:

Let’s go through this every way it can be taken so nobody is left with a possibly terminal case of the dumbs.

The English Language

If we are talking about whether the behavior meets the dictionary definition of recklessness, let’s consult the dictionary:

Screenshot of Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.

Autopilot isn’t perfect. Anyone who has used it for more than just a few minutes knows that it will make mistakes. It’s a great system, but it’s not designed to work without an attentive human ready to take over the controls. Tesla has ambitions to create software to make its newer vehicles drive unattended, but that’s not ready yet.

Tesla’s estimates of the system’s safety assume a driver is supervising. The moment a person leaves the driver’s seat, Tesla’s numbers become completely and totally irrelevant to the question. To abandon the controls and put this software in charge of a vehicle doesn’t absolve the driver of their responsibility for what the vehicle is doing. If it crashes, that’s still on the person who set it up to drive.

I don’t see how it’s possible to reasonably argue that there is proper caution, or that doing this isn’t careless.

The Law

I’m not a lawyer, but come on. Let’s be real here. Let’s first look at California’s reckless driving statute:

(a) A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.

I know from my experience in volunteer law enforcement and from my experience as a state-certified instructor that we can’t always take what a statute says at face value in plain English. As always, there’s a lot of room for people to argue what everything in this statute means, how other statutes affect it, and what the relevant court decisions have been over the years.

I won’t try to play lawyer here, but I know that the courts know that juries can find all of this overwhelming. So, states have jury instructions that factor all this in to clarify how they should apply the law. If you abuse Autopilot, get arrested or cited for it in California, and go to a jury trial, this is what the judge will give the jurors as they decide whether you get to spend time in jail:

The defendant is charged [in Count ] with reckless driving [in violation of Vehicle Code section 23103].

To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that:

1. The defendant drove a vehicle (on a highway/in an off-street parking facility);


2. The defendant intentionally drove with wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.

A person acts with wanton disregard for safety when (1) he or she is aware that his or her actions present a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm, and (2) he or she intentionally ignores that risk. The person does not, however, have to intend to cause damage.

[If you conclude that the defendant drove faster than the legal speed limit, that fact by itself does not establish that the defendant drove with wanton disregard for safety. You may consider the defendant’s speed,along with all the surrounding circumstances, in deciding whether the defendant drove with wanton disregard for safety.]

[A vehicle is a device by which people or things may be moved on a road or highway. A vehicle does not include a device that is moved only by human power or used only on stationary rails or tracks.]

[The term highway describes any area publicly maintained and open to the public for purposes of vehicular travel, and includes a street.]

Let’s unpack this a little. To be considered guilty, you have to be driving on a highway or street and know that what you’re doing presents a substantial and unjustifiable risk, and ignore that risk. A prosecutor will work to convince the jury that this was all true for you.

First, your lawyer might argue that you weren’t driving. The prosecutor will argue that you were driving at some point and then left the seat. Abandoning the controls is an action the driver takes, as a driver. Leaving the seat doesn’t erase past moments when you were in the driver’s seat and abandoned control.

Your lawyer will argue that you didn’t know abusing Autopilot was risky, so the prosecutor will show jurors the following:

When buying a Tesla, its website tells you this about Autopilot:

Even if you didn’t see that, a Tesla employee will go over Autopilot’s features with you and explain that you have to supervise it to use it safely. Expect to see a Tesla employee on the stand telling jurors what they typically teach new owners, and this will serve as additional proof that you knew the risks.

Then, the prosecutor will show the jurors about how the car’s onscreen prompts and warnings told you to keep hands on the wheel, and that you had the seat belt buckled behind you or otherwise did something to willfully fool the system into doing something it warned you not to do. If you’re a big idiot and brag about doing this on YouTube, you’re even more screwed here.

While Warren will argue until blue in the face that some element of the crime didn’t apply to you, think about this: Do you want your freedom to be at risk like this? Do you want a prosecutor to tell the jurors all this and then wonder whose argument the jurors are going to buy?

As you can see, each of the elements of the crime got covered (and I’m not even a prosecutor — they’ll do much better than I did, and be quite thorough about it) and there’s some proof that you committed the crime, so you’re not in a great spot. Also, keep in mind that the jurors are hearing this from respected people in the community, like police officers (in a suit or in uniform). They’ll see someone who works for Tesla speaking. The prosecutors are very adept at putting on a dog and pony show to get in a juror’s head this way.

No lawyer worth their salt would recommend you put yourself in this predicament if it was avoidable, so why tell people that doing this is legal or spread such misinformation? This is just mind boggling.

Tesla’s Terms Are The Least Of Your Worries

In California, they can put you in jail for 90 days and give you a fine of up to $1000 if nobody got hurt. If people get hurt or killed, you can face much more serious charges, and possibly become a felon and spend time in prison.

Aside from the fact that abusing Autopilot is dangerous and stupid, I’d NEVER tell people that it is legal. To do so is irresponsible, likely wrong, and puts people at a completely unnecessary risk of jail or prison time. Even worse, people could get hurt or killed, and there’s no upside to abusing the system.

Seriously, guys, WTF? How can someone say something so mind-bendingly beef-headed?

Featured image by Tesla.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1954 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba