This is a topic that’s come up before, but it’s becoming more and more relevant as time goes on. We’re talking about autonomous and semi-autonomous driving.
First, let me recount a quick conversation with my wife yesterday morning as she drove to work:
Wife: “I may be becoming too comfortable in the abilities of my car.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Wife: “I don’t even have my feet on the pedals. I’m vaguely aware that the car in front of me is slowing down, but I don’t even move my feet. I assume the car will stop for me.”
Me: “You know, that’s meant to be a safety feature that stops for you if you aren’t able. You’re not supposed to rely on it like that. Please don’t do that.”
Wife: “But it always works, and I don’t have to think about it.”
Her car is equipped with adaptive cruise control which does indeed slow down and even stop to accomodate traffic ahead. However, my lovely wife uses it all the time, whether cruising at 70 down the Interstate or in stop-and-go traffic on city arterials. Is she right to rely on her car?
Tesla CEO Elon Musk says yes.
Tesla’s autonomous driving feature is called Autopilot and, according to Musk,
The probability of having an accident is 50 percent lower if you have Autopilot on. Even with our first version, it’s almost twice as good as a person.
The Autopilot software uses cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors to perform basic functions including steering, changing lanes, adjusting speed in response to traffic, and parking. Future versions, from Tesla and other automakers, promise full autonomous driving within the next few years.
There’s a small caveat to Musk’s comments, however:
The data isn’t including fender benders or crashes without airbag deployment. We’re not saying that there are a ton of them, but using airbag deployment as the metric doesn’t necessarily give the full view of the improvement. Also, Autopilot is supposed to be used in good weather on the highway. A controlled cruise is not where a lot of accidents happen.
The concern, of course, is that Autopilot and other systems are being used in daily driving. The more that happens, the more the humans behind the wheel will get lazy and put too much trust in their cars. It may be true that the system can drive safer than a human when it is functioning properly, but should the system fail, the driver had better be paying attention or the consequences will be catastrophic.
Have you driven an autonomous or semi-autonomous car yet?