A Tesla owner, who drove “no hands” on the M50 with his arms folded, has been cleared of dangerous driving after a court heard he had activated the car’s autopilot system.
Noel Bourke (37), Bramley Hall, Diswellstown Avenue, Castleknock, Dublin, who pleaded not guilty, was pulled over on the motorway on the afternoon of March 22nd 2021.
The defence accepted he was driving with no hands on the steering wheel.
However, he testified that he was monitoring the car’s autopilot driver assistant system and he gave an in-depth explanation of how it worked.
Mr Bourke, a mechanical engineer who works for a firm that develops military products and devices for autonomous vehicles, was acquitted following a contested hearing before Judge John Hughes at Dublin District Court on Thursday.
Garda Colin McCluskey told the court that he and a colleague were driving on the M50 when he noticed a Tesla car at 2.05pm heading northbound near the Ballymun junction.
“I looked to my left and two lanes across, I observed a male. He had his arms folded at the time, high across his chest, quite high, almost to his chin. It was quite obvious,” Garda McCluskey said.
He alerted his colleague that the accused “was driving with no hands”.
He accepted that there was nothing dangerous about the driving, which he described as “a bit mechanical”.
The gardaí pulled Mr Bourke over and asked him what he was doing, and he replied, “I was using autopilot”.
Garda McCluskey then cautioned Mr Bourke not to drive without his hands on the steering wheel.
The garda was concerned that the man could not control the car if he had to swerve, adding that holding the steering wheel gave stability to the car and the driver’s body.
The court heard Mr Bourke had no previous convictions, had a clean driving licence and had been driving within the speed limit.
Cross-examined by defence solicitor Mark O’Sullivan, the garda agreed that traffic was not very heavy, and it was a dry day with good visibility. The garda accepted nothing about the car’s condition caused concern and Mr Bourke co-operated.
In evidence, Mr Bourke said he bought the Tesla in March 2020 and had a previous automated vehicle.
He said the autopilot had to be engaged by the driver and only under acceptable conditions.
Mr Bourke explained if another vehicle started to move to the lines between the lanes, his car would slow to accommodate that vehicle.
However, the system, he said, did not respond like a human, so while driving, he paid close attention to other vehicles’ movements and “I try to monitor that and intervene if necessary”.
Under cross-examination with a State solicitor, it was put to him that it was unsafe to drive using no hands on a public road. He replied “not with the correct systems,” but added that without an automated system to control the car, it would be dangerous.
Asked if the unexpected happened, would he be able to react as quickly as a person with their hands on the steering wheel, he said “I would be unsure of that.”
Judge Hughes asked if he accepted it would be better to have two hands on the wheel to take control of the vehicle, and he answered: “Probably yes”.
The judge agreed with the defence solicitor that case law definitions of dangerous driving said there had to be a serious direct risk to another person.
Judge Hughes remarked that while having two hands on the wheel was optimal, he believed the accused was truthful and accepted Mr Bourke was monitoring the autopilot system.
Dismissing the case, he also noted the evidence describing the driving and amount of traffic at the time and held there was no direct risk to other people.