The fatal May 7 crash of a Tesla Model S driving on Autopilot has led to intense scrutiny of the system. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said the company won’t disable Autopilot, arguing that it can save lives.
In that context, the story of Joshua Neally could serve as a public relations lifeline for Tesla. While on his way home from work, Neally began to feel intense pain in his abdomen. Rather than pulling over and calling an ambulance, he activated the Autopilot system on his Tesla Model X and drove about 20 miles to a nearby hospital, according to Slate.
The Model X negotiated the all-highway drive, with Neally steering it off a highway exit ramp to the nearby hospital. He checked himself into the emergency room, where doctors found that he’d suffered a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism, an obstruction of the blood vessels in his lungs. Neally was treated and recovered quickly enough to go home that night.
Neally said he was lucky to be driving a Tesla, but also admitted that, in retrospect, it might have been a better idea to pull over and call an ambulance. Yet he also believes Autopilot got him to the emergency room faster than an ambulance would have, a crucial factor given the severity of his condition.
It’s worth noting that this situation was particularly well suited to Autopilot. It involved almost all highway driving, requiring Neally to only direct the car off an exit ramp and into the hospital parking lot. Tesla has said that Autopilot only functions optimally on highways with clear lane markings, so the system may not have been able to get the job done in another setting. Autopilot also doesn’t recognize stoplights or stop signs, meaning navigating surface streets is effectively out of the question.
Tesla currently faces multiple investigations over the May 7 Autopilot crash, in which a Model S collided with a tractor trailer. Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are looking into the cause of the crash. Preliminary NTSB findings show that the car was traveling 74 mph in a 65 mph zone at the time of the crash, with adaptive cruise control and Autosteer active.