jamesBack in May, Joshua Brown was cruising down a Florida highway in his Tesla Model S when he collided head-on with a tractor-trailer. Although Brown was in the driver seat, his gaze was set on a screen watching Harry Potter while he relied on Tesla’s autopilot feature to take the wheel. It was one of the two fatalities involving Tesla’s autopilot program in the last several months. Although Tesla CEO Elon Musk has made significant improvements to autopilot, such as sharper obstacle radar, drivers have responsibilities of their own to maintain when putting the Tesla in autopilot.

UpCounsel Software Engineer James Hulley weighs in on how both drivers and Tesla need to step up in order to make autopilot a truly safe feature, and how Tesla could learn a thing or two from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Q: What should Tesla drivers in autopilot mode be aware of?

JH: Autopilot is an experimental feature. This software is in beta mode. It’s a driver’s assistance program and not full autonomous driving. It’s like cruise control plus, your hands should still be on the wheel and be ready to take control at any minute. Brown was not ready and that’s how his car collided with the trailer. Consumers need to be just as educated as the automakers. It’s important to read beyond the news on Tesla. Drivers need to research the limitations of these cars before you get in one.

Q: What are the specific differences between cruise control and Tesla’s autopilot?

JH: Autopilot can change lanes for you, merge onto or off the highway, speed up and slow down to match the car in front of you, and even park for you — but it’s not perfect. It’s not a fully autonomous system, and you always have to be paying attention. With standard cruise control, you have speed control and nothing else.

Q: Why is autopilot technology so important to the automotive industry?

JH: Autonomous cars can do more than we’ve ever seen in a consumer product. Tesla sends in over-the-air updates to constantly improve the technology. Tesla can make concepts like traffic and owning a car things of the past. 

Consumers need to be just as educated as the automakers.

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We’re on the precipice of some life changing technology. Imagine never driving another car again — that’s some pretty dramatic stuff. According to the World Health Organization, 1.25 million people died from automobile accidents in 2013, and with self-driving cars we could reduce that number to zero. However, these companies that are introducing this technology need to be really careful and need to make sure their consumers are aware of its limitations.

Q: How can we require customers to adhere to these limitations?

JH: As Tesla, Google, and others continue to develop these autonomous cars, stricter regulation is inevitable. I worked as a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry. Everything is regulated in aerospace — every detail down to the font size of the ‘no smoking’ sign. It was a pain to work through all this regulatory red tape, but air flight is the safest way to travel. In 2010, there were 1.10 fatalities per 100,000 hours in flight, for automobile hours that figure is significantly higher. It’s really important for the public to start taking autonomous driving more seriously. It wouldn’t surprise me if the automotive world starts taking after the airline industry by initiating rigorous testing on every single feature until they’re 100 percent safe. It will be very interesting to see the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration try to catch up with and regulate autonomous cars and the public’s reaction to possible over-regulation. I definitely imagine this will play out in the next year or two. 

Self-driving cars will make vehicle-related deaths obsolete.

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Q: What would be your advice to Elon Musk for Tesla’s self-driving feature?

JH: I would suggest making it more challenging for consumers to misuse this technology. Around the time of the crash in May, Tesla had collected 100,000,000 miles on its autopilot system. Yet, still it’s far from foolproof. I think some drivers really just didn’t understand the implications of the feature and what it can and can’t do. Now, they’ve implemented sound alerts when your hands have been off the wheel for a certain period of time, and they’ve enhanced the cameras and sensors. There are eight cameras that give the vehicle 360 degrees of visibility. These updates should prevent deaths in the future. It would have been better if they included these features from the get-go. Tesla reacted to cases like Brown’s with action, and today their system is the most advanced out there.

Q: Are self-driving cars the future?

JH: Absolutely. The increased safety alone makes it a no brainer. Self-driving cars will make vehicle-related deaths obsolete.

About the author

Julie Morse

Julie Morse

Julie is a researcher and journalist with significant experience reporting on criminal justice and immigration law. As a researcher, she is always up to date on data-driven solutions for public policy reform. She loves to travel.

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