Tesla Autopilot and Driver Safety

Tesla has made some bold predictions for the future of the automotive industry. Their fully electric vehicles have been met with adoration as well as skepticism. While much of the industry continues to strive to improve fuel efficiency in traditional combustion engines, Elon Musk has vowed to see the end of fossil fuel dependency. Has he gone too far this time by pushing the rapid implementation of self-driving cars?

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As with other announcements and releases, the beta test of Tesla Autopilot has seen mixed reviews that lean towards the extremes. Love it or hate it, you cannot deny that it has gotten the attention of the entire automotive industry. Videos on the internet showed Tesla owners driving down highways with their hands off the wheel as the Tesla Autopilot system took control. And then the worst happened: A fatal accident while the Autopilot system was active.

Autopilot is not Autonomous

A common description of the drivers in Tesla Autopilot videos on the internet is “reckless”. Tesla has even made statements that their systems are meant to be used as driver assistance rather than fully autonomous driving. They are hardly unique in offering driver assisting sensors capable of applying the brakes or taking control of steering to avoid collisions or swerving off the road. In all systems the driver is still meant to be attentive and in control of the vehicle, with their hands on the wheel. Yet Tesla’s system boasts the “Autopilot” title which is called misleading by critics. Tesla argues that the system was named in reference to the autopilot system used by planes, which is not fully autonomous either. Semantics aside, it wouldn’t be far fetched to assume that some Tesla drivers might put too much trust into their Autopilot system.

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The fatal accident involving a Tesla and tractor trailer is still under investigation. The only certain details are that the Tesla Model S crashed into a truck making a left turn in front of it. The Tesla then ran off the road, colliding with a fence and power pole before coming to a stop. During this crash, the Autopilot system was active.

There have been a few theories offered for why the Tesla’s Autopilot system did not detect the truck and apply the brakes. One such theory is that the truck’s reflective siding confused the Tesla’s sensors. Tesla uses forward radar, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors in its navigation system. In comparison, Google has developed a laser based system called Lidar. Lidar utilizes a spinning range-finding unit on top of the car that creates a detailed map of the vehicles surrounding’s as it moves. While it might not be as sharp looking as the indistinguishable Tesla sensors, representatives from Lidar said that their system might have avoided the fatal crash.

“The advancements we have seen in safety features, even just over the past ten years, have been huge. Tesla’s Autopilot is among the most advanced collision detection systems on the market, but drivers still need to be safe. These innovations don’t cancel out the dangers of distracted driving. But when you combine safe driving with the capabilities and safety systems of these vehicles, it’s a very positive thing that Tesla has accomplished.” Barry Dorn, Dorn’s Body and Paint.

However, despite the controversy, the fact that this was the very first fatal accident involving Tesla Autopilot still stands. Tesla drivers are utilizing the system all over the world with a remarkable level of success (even with irresponsible drivers posting driving selfies to the internet). The safety features of the Tesla are not meant to replace the drivers common sense, at least not yet. Driver assistant technologies are becoming standard features among most brands. BMW, Subaru, Mercedes, and more all use features such as accident detection and rear-view cameras to help avoid collisions. If Elon Musk’s vision of fully autonomous cars is a near future reality, or science fiction, we cannot say. However the value of modern, safety minded vehicles is undeniable.