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The Tesla didn’t really crash

The Tesla didn’t really crash

The Tesla didn't really crash

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The government revealed on Thursday that a Tesla Model S crashed into a truck in Florida in May, killing the driver of the electric car. This is, according to headlines, the first known example of a fatal road accident involving a self-driving car.

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Except that’s not the case. Tesla’s “Autopilot” feature has been activated. But the model was not designed to be, and should not have been considered fully self-contained. The car’s semi-autonomous systems, which use on-board sensors to steer it away from hazards, weren’t advanced enough to steer and brake the car without the driver paying continued attention and correcting where necessary. In fact, none of the semi-autonomous cars on the market are reliable enough to allow drivers to sit in and disconnect. In Florida’s case, the car failed to detect a large truck that had crossed the Tesla’s path, possibly because it blended into a brightly lit sky.

Tesla forces drivers to recognize that the system has limitations before it can allow it to control the steering wheel. But the automaker also dubbed it “autopilot,” suggesting the technology was more capable than it actually was. It is essential that the public does not learn the wrong lesson from this accident, dismissing all automotive automation technology because it appears to have been misused.

There are crucial distinctions between semi-autonomous car technology, which Tesla deployed in its Model 3, and other vehicle technologies. There are crash avoidance systems, which notify drivers when they’re getting out of their lane, can help monitor blind spots and activate emergency brakes. These are relatively basic features that probably don’t encourage blatant risk-taking. Then there are fully self-driving cars, which are still in the testing phase and will be for some time. These cars promise to be advanced enough to do everything, door to door, without any human intervention. They are much more difficult to develop than simple semi-autonomous features such as autopilot. They have gone through years of research and will continue to be refined before being introduced to the market.

When true self-driving technology is ready for prime time, it will change all sorts of things about the way people get around – for the better. The elderly and the blind will be able to travel with much less assistance. Road deaths may not disappear, but they will decrease. Cars will talk to each other and drive more predictably, so traffic will decrease. Americans won’t have to spend so much time finding parking spaces. Commuters will feel less stress. Many will choose not to own a car at all, as they can probably just hail an inexpensive ride from a self-driving car service. The country will also waste less gasoline.

The benefits are potentially huge, but they won’t materialize if the public turns against self-driving car technology before it’s really had a chance to prove itself.

© 2016 The Washington Post

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