Tesla Autopilot wasn’t created so cars could drive themselves – Business Insider

Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2016


Tesla autopilot
Autopilot in
action.

Tesla

Tesla’s Autopilot semi-self-driving technology is under fire
after a fatal crash in Florida in May has called into question
whether some owners have invested too much trust in the system’s
capabilities.

Two federal-government agencies are investigating the tragic
incident, along with other nonfatal accidents involving
Autopilot.

The crash has also set off a debate about what the future holds
for driverless cars.

But much of the discussion around Tesla’s response to the
incident is missing the point of Autopilot technology altogether.

Tesla was never trying to empower cars to drive themselves while
passengers took naps or watched TV. The company was instead
tackling a specific problem: using technology as a solution.

Safety first

That problem is safety — specifically, the extreme fallibility of
human drivers. A daunting 35,000 people are killed in
auto-related accidents every year in the US alone, and many more
are injured. Most of the crashes are the result of driver error.

There’s no technology that can completely relieve the driver of
responsibility for operating the vehicle, so since the advent of
the seat belt decades ago, safety is cars has concentrated on
protecting drivers and passengers from injury — and on preventing
accidents in the first place.

Seat belts led to air bags and crumple zones — sections of cars
and trucks that are designed to collapse on impact, dissipating
the energy of a crash.


Airbag-Crash-Test
Crash
testing.

Bill Pugliano/Getty
Images


Then new systems were developed: antilock brakes, traction and
stability control, and, more recently, automatic emergency
braking, lane-departure warning, and collision avoidance —
technologies that use sensors, cameras, and radar.

Tesla Autopilot is a logical evolution of these advancements, and
consistent with the company’s vision of addressing transportation
challenges sooner than the traditional auto industry.

The bottom line is that Tesla is trying to design vehicles with
the idea that safety is the primary consideration. And, for the
most part, safety advocates agree that giving drivers more
technology on this front, versus with distracting or complicated
infotainment systems, is a good way to go.

A problem of perception

Unfortunately, Autopilot has been perceived as ultra-advance
cruise-control/near-self-driving tech rather than intensified
safety.

Even Autopilot’s most controversial feature, auto-steering, is
calibrated not to permit the driver to take
his hands off the wheel and let the car steer oneself, but rather
to follow a curve more precisely than a human would. In my
experience, the system plots a series of short straight lines
through a curve, rather than steering through in a continuous
motion, which reduces the chance that the car will “oversteer.”


The interior of a Tesla Model S is shown in autopilot mode in San Francisco, California, U.S., April 7, 2016.   REUTERS/Alexandria Sage/File Photo
Keep
your hands on the wheel, please.

Thomson Reuters

It’s ironic that the safety of Tesla vehicles is now in doubt as
a result of the company pushing the safety envelope. But as I’ve
already argued, additional owner training — call it “Autopilot
101
” — could correct any misperceptions that owners
might have about the capabilities of their Teslas.

They’re not supposed to be driving themselves. They’re supposed
to be helping you do a better and therefore safer
job of driving yourself.

Perfection is a process

Familiar safety technologies haven’t always been perfect. Seat
belts can injure people in a crash if they
aren’t equipped with precrash tensioning systems.

Passenger air bags were resulting in death and injuries to
children before manufacturers added deactivation sensors to the
front seats. New air bags also have vents in the bags themselves
so that they can deflate slightly, preventing injuries when
drivers or passengers hit them.

The issue with the next wave of sensor/radar/camera systems is
that their purpose is to avoid crashes, but that can give drivers
the wrong impression — that they can tune out and let the car
take control. Reasonable and experienced drivers will realize
quickly that they can’t do that.

But because Tesla Autopilot does such a good job of dealing with
mundane driving, even a veteran driver’s prudent distrust is
switched off by letting a machine that weighs thousands of pounds
and can go 100 mph do its own thing.

Avoiding that situation is simply a matter of reminding drivers
that safety isn’t magic and, until we have millions of miles of
autonomous-driving cars in the record books, at some very distant
future point, truly safe driving begins and end with the guy
behind the wheel.

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