In case you haven’t been paying attention: Tesla’s Autopilot has never been fully autonomous

tesla-model-s-95d_1On Monday, January 22nd, at about 8:30 am, a Tesla Model S, which was reportedly being driven using Autopilot, crashed into the rear of a fire truck on Interstate 405 in Culver City, California.  An article from Reuters quoted a tweet from the fire department, which stated “Amazingly there were no injuries.”   The Tesla’s driver blamed the autopilot for the accident.  The fire truck was stopped in the roadway helping another motorist at the time the accident occurred.

The Model S was reportedly traveling at around 65 MPH when it stuck the parked fire truck, completely demolishing the front end of the Model S.  One fact, which was not highlighted in most of the news articles about this accident, was that the driver walked away from the crash with no injuries.  How likely would it have been that the driver, in any other make of vehicle, would have been uninjured in a similar crash?  I believe it’s not likely.

It was also reported that federal investigators will be looking into the crash.  Why are federal investigators looking into a crash in which it seems obvious that the driver was not paying attention to his driving as he should have been?  If the vehicle had been a Toyota or Subaru and the driver had been using traffic-aware cruise control before the accident, would these articles still have the same tone and would federal investigators be investigating the vehicle manufacturer?  Again, I say not likely.

Since Tesla is way ahead of any other automobile manufacturer, in terms of self-driving technology that is available right now to automobile owners, many are quick to condemn Tesla for not putting enough safeguards on this technology.  I suggest the problem is that some drivers are not serious about their responsibility to safely operate a motor vehicle.

For those not familiar with Tesla’s Autopilot, it is a driver-assist feature that steers the vehicle within a traffic lane and controls the vehicle speed, while considering factors of driver-set speed and the movement of other vehicles traveling in the same direction.  It is not an autonomous driving system, meaning that the driver is still responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle.

It is easy to search YouTube for videos of people driving Tesla vehicles while using Autopilot.  In many a video, I have seen drivers using Autopilot under circumstances that would make me feel very uncomfortable.  Proper operation of a vehicle using Autopilot requires the presence of some common sense, something that a few Tesla drivers seem to be lacking.

Earlier today, I drove my mother to a doctor’s appointment in Los Angeles.  We used her car, which is an ICE SUV, equipped with traffic-aware cruise control.  The cruise control on her car is similar to the Tesla Autopilot, without the car doing the steering.  When the cruise control was activated, the car traveled at the speed I selected and would slow or brake if a vehicle I was following would slow or brake.  I was aware of the Tesla accident before I drove to Los Angeles.  I didn’t think much about that accident until I had an unsettling experience with the operation of the traffic-aware cruise control.

I was traveling on a 5-lane freeway in lane number 4 at around 65 MPH.  I had the traffic-aware cruise control set to a maximum speed of 70 MPH, but the car was traveling at about 65 MPH because that was the speed of the car directly in front of me.  At some point, the car in front made an abrupt lane change to the left.  The reason for this quick movement was now visible in front of me.  There was a semi-trailer directly ahead of me, which was traveling much slower than 65 MPH.  I waited for the traffic-aware cruise control to slow my car, but it didn’t.  I had to apply the brakes myself to avoid crashing into the back of the trailer.  Had I not taken control to slow my car, we would have crashed into the back of the semi-trailer.  The cruise control didn’t seem to recognize the trailer as an obstacle since its speed was so much slower than the car that had been between us.

So, if I had not been fully in control of my vehicle, and I had crashed into the back of the semi-trailer, would I be able to claim that the accident was the fault of the traffic-aware cruise control and not my fault?  Using a driver-assist function that is not fully autonomous does not relieve the driver of their responsibility to be in control of their vehicle at all times.  It’s a pretty simple concept.

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