The promise of self-driving automobiles is enormous. Proponents of autonomous vehicle technology say it will reduce our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels, ease traffic congestion and virtually eliminate motor vehicle crashes,  injuries and fatalities.

The importance of the auto industry to Tennessee is clear. If you drive three hours west of Knoxville, you’ll find a GM plant in Spring Hill; or drive an hour and a half southwest of here to Chattanooga to get to a Volkswagen manufacturing facility; or drive west for about 175 miles to see the enormous Nissan plant.

Ready to roll

Plus, Tennessee is one of the states with virtually no legal barriers to self-driving vehicles. We’re ready when the technology is ready. The question of when the tech will be ready came into sharp focus again a few days ago when two men were killed when the Tesla they were in veered off of a Texas road, slammed into a tree and burst into a raging fire.

Local authorities reported that because no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the violent crash, they believe the 2019 Tesla was in its Autopilot mode.

Firefighters spent four hours, and used 32,000 gallons of water, battling the blaze (apparently the vehicle’s batteries kept reigniting the flames).


Law enforcement officials said the vehicle’s driver seat was empty. The two men were found in the passenger seats, with one man in the front and the other in the back. Officials said they believe no one else was in the Tesla.

Tesla warns customers that its Autopilot feature requires “active driver supervision” and that the tech “(does) not make the vehicle autonomous.”

Netflix, nap or booze

But it’s clear from this vehicle crash report and others that not everyone reads their owner’s manual. According to news reports, Tesla owners have engaged the computer-controlled Autopilot feature before watching a movie, drinking alcohol or falling asleep – and then being involved in wrecks or near-wrecks.

Of course, humans aren’t doing a great job of driving either. The National Safety Council estimates that slightly more than 42,000 people died in auto crashes last year and that millions more suffered injuries that required medical attention.