Almost every week we seem to be presented with images of people sleeping in self-driving cars. Nearly always Teslas, there’s something profoundly disturbing about them. Here’s the problem…
Over the last few years, photos have emerged of drivers quite literally asleep at the wheel. Usually on American freeways, in nearly all cases they’re driving models produced by Tesla; which often come with an ‘autopilot’ function. The result is a car travelling around 70 mph without a conscious human operator. Whilst these episodes don’t always lead to accidents or casualties, they certainly can and sometimes do. Back in March, a Model 3 driver crashed into a truck carrying a trailer; the autopilot feature failed to take evasive manoeuvres. The result was the roof of the car being sheared off and the 50-year old driver being killed.
Tesla argues that drivers of its vehicles must always keep their hands on the wheel, even when the autopilot feature is engaged. They’ve also cast doubt on the authenticity of the reports of sleeping drivers. In a statement the company said, “many of these videos appear to be dangerous pranks or hoaxes”. They were also keen to stress the safety of the feature, “Tesla drivers have logged more than one billion miles with Autopilot engaged, and our data shows that, when used properly by an attentive driver who is prepared to take control at all times, drivers supported by Autopilot are safer than those operating without assistance”. But there’s more to it than that…
That Tesla is under the spotlight can arguably be attributed to the technological lead it seemingly has over its competitors. Even its fiercest critics have acknowledged the manufacturer of EVs’ sophisticated driverless tech. But another problem lies with the company’s marketing; and it’s by no means unique to them. Industry regulators have expressed concerns over the language automakers are using in their marketing. The fear is that they’re exaggerating the self-driving capabilities of their vehicles; a charge both Tesla and the likes of Mercedes have faced.
A self-driving car would, ultimately, dispense with a steering wheel and pedals and would require no human intervention in order to navigate or operate; it’d get you from ‘a’ to ‘b’ with nothing else required of you other than a stated destination. In simple terms, we’re no where near such a vehicle. And not just in the consumer markets, but in terms of raw technology. Tesla’s autopilot feature essentially allows vehicles to guide themselves down motorway-like environments; keeping them in-lane and avoiding collisions with other vehicles. But, again, the company stress that drivers must keep their hands on the wheel at all times; usually something they reinforce during a legal battle. Even their own website reads ‘the currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous’. That is to say, Tesla accepts driverless cars don’t exist or, at the very least, it doesn’t sell them.
Self-Driving Arms Race
Tesla’s description of its semi-autonomous feature as ‘autopilot’ has, for some people, been misleading. As well as for industry regulators. The very name, arguably, implies that the vehicle is capable of fending for itself on the road network; the car can pilot itself. One also has to question the wisdom and utility of stripping the driver of responsibility and focus, whilst both are still fundamentally needed.
The fact of the matter is, automakers and tech giants are scrambling to be the first to present consumers with a driverless car. Why? Because they expect it to be a big-seller, one of historic proportions. As a result, they’re potentially putting lives at risk. Whether it’s through rushed testing (a woman was killed by an autonomous vehicle operated by Uber in Arizona) or misleading marketing jargon. Study after study has revealed that consumers are wary of ‘driverless’ cars and nervous about their applications. Their gut instinct is that the concept just isn’t ready. And they’ve got good reason to think so. Without huge hurdles in sensor technology, road infrastructure, defences against hacking and sophisticated legislation, they remain a half-baked pipe dream. Which is probably why Ford’s Chief Executive, Jim Hackett, recently admitted the company had hugely overestimated their time of arrival.
So remember, if your car has a steering wheel and pedals, it’s not driverless or autonomous. No matter what Elon Musk tells you.
The Many Reasons Why Driverless Cars Don’t Exist Yet: https://www.autoserveclub.co.uk/blog/the-many-reasons-why-driverless-cars-dont-exist-yet/
Self-Driving Cars Might Only Last For Four Years: https://autoserve.co.uk/motoring-news/self-driving-cars-last-four-years/