Mid-afternoon on July 26, attorney Joshua Neally got into his Tesla Model X near his downtown Springfield law office to make the drive home to Branson. It was his daughter's 4th birthday, and they had plans for the evening.He took Chestnut Expressway, merged onto U.S. 65 and drove south out of Springfield city limits. Then things got worse. "It was excruciating pain," Neally told the News-Leader Friday. "I've never had such pain in my life." His breathing was limited. He struggled to place a call to his wife, and gasped in pain during their conversation. At times, Neally said, he couldn't see.
The drive, however, didn't end in a crash, or with Neally pulling over to the side of the road, although he concedes the latter might have been the recommended practice. Instead, he told the News-Leader, he successfully drove to a CoxHealth facility in Branson for treatment — thanks to the fact that the vehicle was doing most of the work.
Teslas have an autopilot mode, during which, according to the company, vehicles use their "unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to automatically steer down the highway, change lanes, and adjust speed in response to traffic."
Neally said the self-driving mode is designed for divided highways, not city streets. Once the driver initiates the mode, the vehicle maintains its lane and slows down if another car merges in. If the driver wants to pass, Neally said, he or she hits the blinker, and the car takes over from there.
Every four minutes, Neally said, the driver must grab the steering wheel to signal to the vehicle that he or she is aware.
"It's more like the ultimate cruise control," Neally said.
Neally said he turned on the autopilot mode after getting on U.S. 65, and the Tesla kept driving at highway speeds as the pain struck and he talked to his wife.
At first, Neally still thought it might be a pulled muscle, and the pain might pass. But he ultimately decided to head for the emergency room. The worst pain hit him just past Highlandville; the final miles into Branson seemed endless.
By the time he made it to his exit, Neally said, "the pain had subsided enough that I could see." He manually drove the car the few blocks to the hospital, getting there around 4:45 p.m.
Neally left five hours later, after learning he'd suffered a pulmonary embolism, a blockage of an artery in the lungs. He was given blood thinners to take.
Tesla's autopilot mode attracted attention in June, when the company revealed the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration was investigating the death of a 40-year-old man who was driving on autopilot.
Neally said the situation didn't necessarily change his perception of autopilot, and believes the company has made it clear that drivers need to monitor the vehicle's activity. Still, he acknowledged that friends ask what he does when the car is doing the driving, and that he will at times check email or send text messages on his phone.
After the medical scare, Neally heard from a Tesla employee checking on his loan paperwork — he'd only had the car for about a week. He told the employee what happened, and the story made its way to the company's communications team.
Online news outlet Slate was the first to report on Neally's harrowing drive, as part of a broader story about Tesla's autopilot feature.
"Neally’s experience is unusual," reporter Will Oremus wrote. "It doesn’t prove autopilot’s worth as a safety feature any more than Brown’s death disproves it. Yet Neally’s story is the latest of several that have emerged since the Florida crash to paint a fuller picture of autopilot’s merits, in addition to its by now highly publicized dangers."
"These stories provide at least a measure of anecdotal support for Tesla’s claims that its own data show autopilot — imperfect as it is — is already significantly safer than the average human driver," he continued.
If Neally was driving a traditional car, he said, he might have been able to pull over and call an ambulance. But he doesn't think he would've gotten to the hospital any faster than he did using the autopilot.
"I definitely believe it helped me," he said.
Neally's daughter was able to spend time with friends while he was at the hospital. The family went out to celebrate on a later date.