Tesla is having an interesting year with its Autopilot capabilities. Its software, supported by cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors, can automatically drive on a highway including changing lanes and adjusting speed depending on surrounding traffic. It can find a parking space and parallel park itself. It even comes when called. The Summon feature allows you to call your car from your phone and have it meet you at your front door. How many times have you wished for that feature when you can’t quite remember exactly where you parked in that huge shopping center lot on a rainy cold day?
Joshua Neally is quite happy with his Model X. On his way home in Springfield, Missouri, he suddenly felt something like “a steel pole through my chest.” He let his Tesla autonomously take him more than 20 miles to the off-ramp near the closest hospital. Neally had to drive himself the final stretch, but he survived a pulmonary embiolism, which kills 50,000 people a year, 70% in the first hour.
On the other hand, Joshua Brown had a different experience with his Tesla Model S in Williston, Florida. His car’s sensor system failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheeler crossing the highway on a bright sunny day. Joshua was killed when the top of his car was torn off when it went through the trailer.
Tesla cars are not fully autonomous: they require the driver to remain alert and keep their hands on the steering wheel. Neally’s car got him safely 20 miles and off the freeway, but he had to manually drive to the emergency entrance. Brown was apparently watching a Harry Potter movie at the time of the crash; at least the movie was still playing when the car finally stopped after snapping a telephone pole a quarter mile from the accident.
Uber in Pittsburgh is offering rides in self-driving Ford Fusion cars. There is still a driver who has to be ready to take over at any time. The current software will not automatically change lanes, like when a delivery van is double-parked on a city street. The driver needs to take control to safely go around the obstacle.
Like today’s cruise control, you must engage the self-driving features, and manually braking or accelerating disables the self-driving features.
Surprisingly, bridges can be a problem for autonomous vehicles. One might think that nothing could be simpler than a bridge: a straight set of well marked lanes with a definite right side and minimal distractions like pedestrians and cross streets. But that simplicity is a big part of the problem. Without so many environmental clues like buildings, it is harder for the car to figure out exactly where it is. This is one reason Pittsburgh was chosen for this first Uber self-driving car rollout. Pittsburgh also has four seasons, an irregular grid of roads, and lots of potholes, and Carnegie Mellon University robotics center. The robotics center providing the self-driving hardware and software.
We are in the awkward learning phase with autonomous vehicles. Having someone behind the wheel to take over is problematic. It is hard enough to stay focused on driving when you are actually driving, let alone when you have very little to do.
The last word:
If you have one of the current crop of semi-autonomous vehicles, you must pay attention at all times. Tesla emits an audible chime when it detects that the driver does not have his hands on the wheel. Uber currently has a engineer behind the wheel, and another ride-along engineer in the passenger seat monitoring the car and taking notes.
If you are riding in a semi-autonomous vehicle, like the Uber cars in Pittsburgh, do not distract the driver. Treat the driver like you would in a normal vehicle.
On the other hand, Teslas had been driven more than 130 million miles in autopilot mode prior to its first fatality, compared to one fatality every 94 million miles in the US and every 60 million miles worldwide.
Always remember, these software systems are still in beta. You won’t trust your business to beta software; don’t trust your life to beta software!
Keep your sense of humor.