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Could The Self-Driving Car Incident in '9-1-1' Really Happen?

Debates range on about safety with self-driving cars — and a “9-1-1 Season 3 episode, "Malfunction," illustrated both sides.

911 Self Driving Car Incident

A car that drives by itself seems like a miracle, but could it have any dangerous side effects? The Season 3 episode of “9-1-1” titled “Malfunction” throws its hat into the ongoing debate over self-driving cars by recreating the life-threatening moment a Tesla driver experienced in 2016.

The episode sees a man named Brian driving while talking on the phone with his wife. He informs her that he is using the self-driving feature on his new car and doesn’t have his hands on the wheel nor his feet on the pedals. As they argue about safety, he experiences a pain in his arm that moves to his chest. Before passing out, he tells the autopilot to take him to the hospital. 

The fictional call was similar to a real-life incident that took place in Missouri. Joshua Neally previously told Slate that he was leaving work in his Tesla Model X to go home and celebrate his daughter’s 4th birthday. He used the vehicle’s autopilot function, which only works on the highway, to make the 45-minute drive easier. 

Eventually, Neally felt a sharp pain in his abdomen that only got worse as the minutes ticked by. Like the character in “9-1-1,” he remembers calling his wife through gasps and painful convulsions, and they agreed he needed to go to the emergency room. He rerouted his destination to a nearby hospital and allowed his autopilot to take him 20 miles down the highway through rush hour traffic, according to Slate.

He then took over for the short drive from the highway to the emergency room where doctors told him he had suffered a pulmonary embolism, an obstruction of a blood vessel to the lungs. Pulmonary embolisms are fatal in some cases, making Neally one of the lucky survivors. He was actually discharged later that night. 

He admitted that it may have been safer to simply pull his car over and call an ambulance, but explained that the gravity of his situation hit him slowly. Therefore, by the time he realized he was in immediate danger, it was quicker to trust his autopilot for fear a painful convulsion would have made him a danger to other drivers on the road had he been in control. 

While Neally’s incident may sound like a terrific case for self-driving cars, there are also stories of their failures. For example, a man in Florida named Joshua Browndied that same year when his Tesla Model S was utilizing its autopilot system on a divided highway, CNBC reported.

Because there is still some controversy surrounding the use of self-driving cars, “9-1-1” stopped short of making them the hero of this story. Although Brian’s car gets him to the hospital, it crashes through the entrance into the lobby, severely injuring a nurse. Fortunately, Howie Han (Kenneth Choi), Henrietta Wilson (Aisha Hinds), and Bobby Nash (Peter Krause) of the 118 were on hand to help out.

Four episodes of "9-1-1" air on USA Network back-to-back on Thursdays starting at 7/6c.

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