Is Upgrading Tesla’s Autopilot Safe?

Why automakers, other than Tesla, tread lightly when it comes to upgrading automated driving systems.

Since a fatal Tesla autopilot car crash last May, Tesla’s technology has been a target of automated driving system skeptics.

The investigation wrapped up in January. In the end, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cleared Tesla of any wrongdoing.

But that hasn’t closed the chapter for skeptics. Recent videos on YouTube show a Model S Tesla driving like it’s drunk. The car swerves into the oncoming lane, despite good driving conditions and clear lane markings.

  Related: Feds Give Self-Driving Cars the Right of Way

How much should we trust Tesla’s Autopilot?

According to Tesla’s own website, Autopilot is “an advanced driver assistance system … It is designed as a hands-on experience to give drivers more confidence behind the wheel, increase their safety on the road, and make highway driving more enjoyable by reducing the driver’s workload.”

Tesla goes on to say that Autopilot capabilities are “additive to the driver’s by augmenting their perception, improving their decision making, and assisting in their control of the vehicle.”

In other words, Autopilot isn’t meant to replace any part of the driving task itself … yet.

Currently, Autopilot is considered a Level 2 system on the six-tiered path towards vehicle autonomy. Autopiliot can take over certain “driving modes” or tasks, but the expectation is that the driver is actively monitoring driving conditions and in control.

BMW, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz also offer Level 2 features on their vehicles. Each automaker has some type of safety system in place to ensure that drivers stay alert while at the wheel.

For instance, Mercedes-Benz Steering Assist uses sensors in the steering wheel to detect hands on the wheel. Volvo’s Pilot Assist II looks for occasional steering inputs from the driver. If those cues don’t happen, the automated driving system deactivates. (Of course, there are work-arounds.) Drivers also need to keep a grip on the wheel in a Tesla or an alarm bell will sound. Ignore it, and Autopilot disengages for the remainder of the trip.

Related: Self-Driving Levels Explained

Autopilot: A Path Towards Autonomy

But Tesla is committed to blazing a fast and furious trail towards full driverless autonomy. On its way, it plans to upgrade Autopilot and its automobiles so they’re semi-autonomous, Level 3 systems.

Unlike Level 2 systems where the driver is expected to still be actively “driving,” in Level 3 vehicles, the car, itself, does most of the driving. Humans are only expected to take over when necessary. Critics say this is the worst of both worlds: With nothing to do but just look out a windshield, it’s definitely not driving, but it’s not fully autonomous either.

Ford first noticed the potential dangers of Level 3 vehicles during test-drives. Engineers monitoring semi-autonomous cars were falling asleep at the wheel. The company installed bells, buzzers and vibrating steering wheels. They even hired second-in-command engineers, in essence, to give the lead engineers company.

But these adjuncts only highlighted the real problem. According to Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief, it’s human nature. “You start trusting the vehicle more and more and … feel you don’t need to be paying attention.”

Tests show it takes drivers an average of 3 to 7 seconds to snap to attention and take control of a vehicle — even when there were flashing lights and verbal commands. A lot of ground can be covered in that short time span. A car whizzing down a highway at 60+ miles covers about 88 feet per second!

Volvo’s CEO Hakan Samuelsson doubted that a person could react that quickly to save themselves from a crash.

“We don’t believe in five seconds, 10 seconds,” Samuelsson said. “It could even be dangerous. If you are doing something else, research shows that it will take two minutes or more before you can fully come back and take over. And that’s absolutely impossible. That really rules out Level 3 [as a viable option].”

 Related: Driverless Car Accidents & the Trolley Problem

Defending the Machine

But Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk defended Level 3 technologies as a matter of ethics.

“I feel quite strongly that as soon as you have data that says that autonomy improves safety [we should bring it to market],” said Musk. “And I think it would be morally wrong to withhold functionalities that improve safety simply in order to avoid criticisms or for fear of being involved in lawsuits.”

Tesla isn’t alone. Audi is planning to introduce an Level 3 driving system in 2018 called Traffic Jam Pilot. General Motors’ is hoping it bought its way to Level 3 automation.  It shelled out over $1 billion for Cruise Automation, a start-up that develops  highway auto-pilot systems.

Of course, safety could be enhanced through Level 3 technologies. In 2015, distracted driving caused auto accidents to spike for the first time in a half-century. They rose again in 2016. Drivers roaming the roads with their cell phones in hand might benefit from an autopilot system.

It’s also likely that Level 3 systems will make it easier to, ultimately, transition to more fully autonomous vehicles.  Humans can slowly cede control over driving – rather than give it all up at once.

But just like in life, you’re either in the driver’s seat or you’re not. Car companies should keep that in mind as they move towards an autonomous future.

   Article written by MG Rhodes.  Article submitted 4/13/17

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