It finally happened.
I told you it was only a matter of time. On 7 May, 40-year-old Joshua Brown was watching a Harry Potter movie while driving down a divided highway in Williston, Florida, when a tractor-trailer made a left turn perpendicular to and in front of his car. Brown, focused on the wizadry of Harry Potter, failed to notice the truck, and so did his Tesla Model S autonomous (self-driving) car. Brown’s vehicle kept going, right under the trailer part of the semi, killing Brown.
Tesla, while not exactly denying responsibility, has a few excuses for the car’s behaviour up its sleeve. The first is that the autopilot feature is yet in “public beta testing”, the default is for the autopilot to be in “off” mode and the human behind the wheel must manually activate it. Additionally, there is a warning once the autopilot is activated that reminds the driver this is an “assist feature” and that the human should keep his/her hands on the steering wheel at all times. Um … does this mean that Joshua should not have been watching Harry Potter after all? The second reason Tesla gives for the crash is that the autopilot relies on cameras and radar to detect and avoid obstacles, and the cameras weren’t able to effectively differentiate “the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky.” The radar should not have had any problems detecting the trailer, but according to Tesla, “radar tunes out what looks like an overhead road sign to avoid false braking events.” And lastly, Tesla says this is the first fatal accident in more than 130 million miles of Autopilot testing — well above the U.S. average of 1 death per 90 million miles and the worldwide average of one death per 60 million miles.
So, what we have is a human who failed to understand that this car is still a new technology, that the bugs have not all been worked out, and he did not use good judgement. And we have software in the car’s autopilot system that needs to be modified. But hey … it was the first in 130 million miles, and human drivers die once every 90 million miles, so we are still doing better than the national average.
Now here is the great part. Tesla said that if the tractor-trailer had also been an autonomous vehicle, the accident would likely have been avoided. Self-driving tractor-trailers??? When/if that becomes reality, I will stop driving and stay home! The average weight of a car is approximately 4,000 pounds. The average weight of a loaded semi is 80,000 pounds or twenty times as much. Guess who is going to get hurt here. Tesla’s argument is that, had the tractor-trailer also been autonomous, it might have been on the same network and rather like an air traffic control system, the network could have orchestrated the safe passage of both vehicles. So … what if they had been on different networks? And what about those of us who neither have nor want autonomous cars? Some proponents of the system have even gone so far as to say that these problems would be solved if robotic cars weren’t required to share the road with humans. We people are the problem.
In a separate incident
Albert Scaglione and Tim Yanke were riding in Scaglione’s Tesla Model X eastbound along the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Bedford, Pennsylvania when something went amiss with the car’s autopilot, and the car hit a guardrail on the right side of the roadway. It then crossed over the eastbound lanes and hit the concrete median. After that, the Tesla Model X rolled onto its roof and came to rest in the middle eastbound lane. Both men survived this crash, as did Thomas Hess, who was driving on the westbound side when debris from the crash flew across the highway and hit his car. Dale Vukovich of the Pennsylvania State Police says they are still investigating the crash, but that it is likely Scaglione will be cited. Makes sense to me … I mean, you cannot exactly cite the car, and we cannot simply say that since it may have been a mechanical failure, nobody is accountable.
Perhaps I am just a boring old fuddy-duddy, stick-in-the-mud, non-adventurous old crone, but personally, I do not think the world is ready for this technology just yet. Obviously, the technology still has some major issues, some fatal flaws, if you will, to be resolved before these cars should even be on public roadways. Let’s face it folks; driving is not all that hard these days. Most cars now come equipped with automatic transmissions, turn signals, automatic fuel-injection systems, cruise control, power steering and power brakes, and even GPS and hands-free phone (though good luck figuring out how to make either of those last two work!!!). Last weekend I rented a 2016 Ford Focus for my trip, and it had all of the above, plus when I was backing into a parking space, it even beeped and blipped at me that I was getting close to the curb! So already the cars do almost everything for you … all that is expected of us humans is that we stay awake, keep our eyes on the road, foot near the brake, hands on the wheel, and pay attention to the road ahead. Is that too much to ask? If it is, perhaps you should consider either staying home or buy a bicycle.