On a sunny day last May, a Tesla Model S outfitted with Autosteer technology didn’t stop when a white tractor-trailer crossed its path. The giant side of the truck appeared blindingly white to the car’s sensors against the bright sky. The car didn’t stop. Unfortunately, the driver didn’t hit the brakes either and was tragically killed.
That collision marked the first death of a person driving in a semi-autonomous vehicle. It also set off a controversy about the safety of the technology, prompting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to investigate the role Tesla’s autopilot played in the crash.
Green Light on Driverless Cars
Eight months later, the federal agency handed down their verdict: “A safety-related defect trend has not been identified at this time and further examination of this issue does not appear to be warranted.”
That brought a sigh of relief to the auto industry. Nearly every large car maker invests big money in driverless technology. Toyota announced a $1B budget for autonomous driving research over the next 5 years. Estimates put Google spending at about $30 million per year on driverless endeavors. As a whole, The Consulting Group estimates the driverless car global market could reach $42 billion by 2025.
But the real yardstick used to measure driverless impact is safety, which is why Tesla’s autopilot fatality touched a nerve.
A staggering 94 percent of the 2.5 million accidents per year on U.S. roadways are caused by human error. Driverless car technology can save millions from death and injury and eliminate hundreds of billions of dollars of related costs. Traffic accidents cause $500 billion in economic damage worldwide each year. Google expects driverless technologies could result in a 90 percent decrease in car accidents.
The NHTSA’s findings lend credence to that claim. In the investigation, the agency found cars with Tesla’s autopilot technology, which keeps the car within clear lane markings, crashed less frequently than those without.
NHTSA didn’t fault Tesla for overselling its Autosteer feature, either. They noted the company adequately warns drivers that Autosteer still requires supervision.
Building Safer Driverless Technology
Soon after the Florida accident, Tesla updated its technology. The system now relies more on the built-in radar, rather than the camera, to spot hazards. Newer vehicles feature a fuller range of sensors that could one day push beyond driver assistance into fully autonomous driving.
In the end, we may experience more injuries and fatalities as we perfect driverless car sensors and controls. But it seems clear from the outcome of this investigation that the government is giving driverless technologies – not drivers –the right of way.
Article written by MG Rhodes. Submitted: 3/22/17
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