True to my technophile self, I’ve embraced all the latest advances in automobile technology. I was driving a few friends back from lunch a few days ago, and they were aghast at how I didn’t even turn my head as my car backed into a tight space. So, the news of the fatal crash involving a Tesla-S in self-driving mode (aka “Autopilot”) broke my heart. I pictured the proud Tesla owner, Joshua Brown (a tech consulting firm owner) who had grown accustomed to trusting his car to drive him in stop and go traffic. That fateful day was sunny, exceptionally bright, when a tractor-trailer turned left in front of the Tesla driver.
The Tesla news release explained:
Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.
While my enthusiasm for autonomous cars remains in high gear, this tragedy highlights the fact that the engineers need to reexamine their algorithms to uncover any other possible scenarios where sensors may not react quickly enough to keep all of the passengers safe.
Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert. Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with driver oversight, the data is unequivocal that Autopilot reduces driver workload and results in a statistically significant improvement in safety when compared to purely manual driving.
This begs the question: Why have an Autopilot function if an alert driver is constantly required to oversee the Autopilot? Human nature will result in drivers allowing themselves to get distracted, once putting their cars into self-driving mode. What’s the purpose of an autonomous car, if the human behind the steering wheel cannot let her mind wander for even a moment?