Self-driving cars from Google and the Tesla Model S with autopilot vehicle have both been in the news a lot. Unfortunately the latest news was not good: an Ohio man was killed in May while in a Tesla Model S. It would be incorrect, strictly speaking, to say he was driving the vehicle, because the driver-assist technology was turned on at the time of the crash.
This was the first recorded death from a person being driven by their vehicle. But what cause for worry should the public have about these vehicles and their potential threat to safety? Let’s look at the facts:
- Joshua David Brown, age 40, was killed when his car struck the side of a tractor trailer that had turned in front of him.
- The car, operating under the Tesla autopilot, kept going the same speed until it passed under the tractor trailer
- Tesla Motors said the crash occurred because the Autopilot feature was not able to distinguish the “white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky.”
- Tesla further stated that it’s autopilot is intended to be “an assist feature,” only– drivers must keep their hands on the steering wheel and be prepared to take control “at any time.”
- The tractor trailer driver stated that the Tesla was playing a Harry Potter movie after the crash, which could implication that the driver had been distracted by the movie.
Can a Vehicle Really be Trusted to Drive Itself?
Tesla says drivers need to remain completely engaged with driving with the autopilot feature is being used. But will people really do this? Another video shows a man sleeping in his moving Tesla as it maneuvered through heavy traffic. So the question may be less about how much we can trust the vehicles themselves, but rather how much we can trust the person ostensibly operating the vehicle to remain engaged with the task at hand– driving.
Google is developing a car that could completely eliminate the need to drive at all. Google says that they are dedicated to reducing the 1.2 million deaths worldwide from traffic accidents each year. And Google cites human error as responsible for 94% of all accidents in the U.S. But this vehicle is not out for consumers to purchase now– so time will tell about the safety record of self-driving vehicles.
Tesla says its current Model S with is built to keep improving as it is used, with a battery of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data input that is supposed to automatically steer, change lanes, adjust speed– and avoid obstacles. Tesla claims its autopilot is supposed to make driving easier, safer, and more pleasant– likening it to cruise control. Reading, watching movies, and napping are not part of the design– and definitely create risks.
And for most of us right now even the autopilot is not an option. Florida drivers must remain behind the wheel, fully engaged with everything going on around them. A moment’s lack of focus or distraction can lead to deadly results.
Latest news, July 2016: A driver was headed from Seattle to Yellowstone National Park in his Tesla Model X in autopilot mode when he crashed on a two-lane highway near Cardwell, Montana at 12:30 a.m. Saturday, July 9th. This is now the third serious crash seemingly tied to the autopilot feature, as the safety of such automatic driving features are being investigated by two federal safety agencies.
Interestingly enough, however: the driver of the Tesla in the crash said he would buy another Tesla.
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