Tesla vehicles are often praised for being cutting edge and innovative. One of the luxuries that this brand offers drivers is a driver assistance system. Driver assistance means that Tesla vehicles can brake, accelerate, and steer by themselves, but it is not meant to be a fully autonomous system. Drivers are instructed to pay attention and to keep their hands on the wheel at all times. This is something that many Tesla owners, unfortunately, misunderstand.
This driver assistance system, called Tesla Autopilot recently came under fire after a Tesla driver was killed following an accident that took place while Autopilot was engaged. The driver died shortly following the collision with a roadside barrier. According to reports from Tesla, the driver had received several visual warnings, or audible warning to put their hands back on the steering wheel before the accident. Vehicle logs show that the driver took no action. This is really the crux of the issue. People who do not understand that “autopilot” does not mean “autonomous” blame the autopilot feature for failing. The reality is that the driver was behaving irresponsibly, placing too much trust in a system that still required his input and judgement.
It is scary to think that vehicles designed to keep us safe may in fact lead to significant and even fatal crashes, but it is vital for early adopters to understand that these are not self-driving vehicles. It says right on Tesla’s site that “All new Tesla cars come standard with advanced hardware capable of providing Autopilot features today, and full self-driving capabilities in the future, through software updates designed to improve functionality over time.” Self driving is not available. That is like an iPod owner in 2005 expecting his mp3 player to place phone calls. The iPhone was imminent, much like self driving cars are, but it simply was not available before its time.
In order for people to eventually feel safe in self-driving cars, we need to understand and accept the limitations of the technology today. Tesla’s autopilot feature was not responsible for that fatal crash.