Tesla Autopilot: Why You Can’t Just Leave the Driver’s Seat

Source: Tesla
Source: Tesla

The technology that we’ve all been promised since post-war optimism of the ’40s and ’50s is here — kind of. And like most cutting edge stuff, the promise of self-driving cars is being served with a side of caution from… well, numerous parties. Using advanced censors and computing tech, certain models of Tesla’s Model S sedan can largely drive themselves with virtually no diver input.

The purpose of Tesla autopilot, company officials say, was purely to allow people to experiment with a degree of car automation while sitting in the driver seat with their hands on the steering wheel. However, the temptation proved to be too much for at least a few dozen drivers, and now, the Internet is awash with videos of drivers using Tesla autopilot and hands-free — and in some cases, driver-free — manner.

One of the most egregious examples is a video of a Dutch highway with a Tesla effectively driving itself down a multilane road amongst other traffic, while the cameraman and driver sits in the back seat. The video has been pulled from YouTube for copyright issues, but you can still see that bits of it on this Tech News page.

For an explanation of what the auto maker was thinking, take a look at the part of the Tesla press kit that goes over new autopilot features.

“[The autopilot] update increases the driver’s confidence behind the wheel with features to help the car avoid hazards and reduce the driver’s workload. While Model S can’t make traffic disappear, it can make it a lot easier, safer, and more pleasant to endure.” The system allows the car to steer itself down the highway, change lanes and adjust speed, and parallel park, without the driver doing much of anything.

Tesla Model S
Source: Tesla

“Tesla requires drivers to remain engaged and aware when Autosteer is enabled. Drivers must keep their hands on the steering wheel,” Tesla writes of the car’s Autosteer function. Again, this is pretty clear cut, but sounds a lot like a parent telling a 4-year-old to always look for traffic. In other words, without supervision, how do you enforce it?

Drivers, Tesla says, can “engage the turn signal, and Model S will move itself to the adjacent lane when it’s safe to do so.” So if my car can change lanes on its own, and do all of this other stuff, what am I sitting there for?

As for autopark, that’s a feature that drivers will most likely appreciate more than the high-speed traffic automation, which most of us would probably prefer to handle ourselves. With parallel parking, on the other hand, there’s very little real risk of injury, due to the lack of speed, and in the case of any dings or other problems, we can throw our hands up and blame the computer.

Tesla staffers declined to provide comment in response to our emails, but it’s more than clear that concerns about the safety of Tesla autopilot have reached the top, and that company leader Elon Musk is committed to fixing the problem.

“There’s been some fairly crazy videos on YouTube,” Musk reportedly said in a recent earnings call. “This is not good.”

A YouTube clip of a Bloomberg Business interview shows Musk talking about the issue of responsibility.

“We’re not yet at the stage where you can go to sleep and wake up at your destination,” Musk says. He clarifies that Tesla was not trying to provide autonomous driving, but to build more safety features into vehicle design. The goal, he says, was to make driving more comfortable and safer, too.

Tesla will work to put more constraints on its new autonomous design. In the meantime, look out for errant robo-cars and urge drivers you know to use their common sense – because even though some of the newest cars can do all kinds of driving by themselves, full vehicle automation is not yet ready for prime time.

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