Tesla’s Autopilot: Don’t Lie. It’s Not for the Alert, It’s for the Distracted.

Posted on March 23, 2015


Nobody is going to watch like a hawk as their car does all the driving.


Last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that Tesla would offer a self-driving electric car by this summer. According to him, a software update will allow drivers to cede control to the “autopilot” mode, at least on major highways.

But skeptics quickly pointed out a legal hornet’s nest that will likely prevent any swift advancement in putting this technology on the road. Envisioning liability issues, law professor Carl Tobias asks: “If it’s fully autonomous, who’s responsible if there’s a mistake? The driver or the company who made it?”

And you know there will be mistakes. There will likely be occasional glitches – check out these three harrowing cases in France, in which terrified Renault drivers were trapped in their wildly accelerating cars with no remedy, in 2004, 2005, and 2013. But the more common problems will probably arise from GPS errors. Think of all the idiots who have blindly followed their GPS into disaster (and sometimes, death).  We can console ourselves that of course, we would never be so stupid, but if the GPS thinks that the lake is a road, and the car is driving itself… well… the end result is the same.

Tesla spokeswoman Alexis Georgeson has the answer for that: she says the system was designed to be used by an alert driver. “We’re not getting rid of the pilot. This is about releasing the driver from tedious tasks so they can focus and provide better input.”

Oh, God. I just blew my soda out my nose. Nobody is going to engage the “autopilot” and then sit there very attentively watching its every move for the entire trip, coiled like a steel spring, ready to intervene at the slightest sign of trouble.  We’re just not built that way.

First off, even with the best of intentions, a human being is going to find it pretty difficult to sit passively and attentively watch the car drive itself for 30, 60, 90 minutes or more. This is not a spectator sport. Once the novelty wears off, it will rank right up there with watching your coffee cup go around and around in the microwave. Try giving that your full attention for 45 minutes or so.

More to the point, we already have huge problems with distracted drivers doing everything behind the wheel except actually, you know, driving. Blathering on the phone is the least of it; they’re texting, e-mailing, Facebooking, reading the paper, eating breakfast, shaving, putting on makeup, and the weirdest thing I have personally witnessed, changing their pants. All of this, while their very non-autonomous cars hurtle down the road. And we are supposed to believe that these people are going to pay any kind of attention to their autonomous cars in autopilot mode? Ha!

Just be honest, Tesla: the big attraction of the autopilot feature is really not to somehow let the driver “better focus” on what the car is doing. That is utter bull, and we all know it. The big attraction is that the owners (you can hardly call them drivers anymore, can you?) won’t have to focus on anything the car is doing. Their focus will be wholly dedicated to work projects, personal grooming, eating – shoot, they’ll probably take up cooking in their cars – and all the other inane crap we normally do right now while steering with our knees and only looking up occasionally to see if we’re still on the road.

I have mixed feelings about this whole development.

On the one hand, I don’t think the technology is quite ready for prime time; the occasional automotive glitch aside, GPS might never be fully trustworthy. Not only are there constant changes to real-world roads – construction, closures due to accidents or natural disaster – but the communications system that GPS relies on can be vulnerable, too. Just last week, with solar storm activity at a high point and the Aurora Borealis extending far to the south, we were warned that navigation systems might not be as accurate as usual. Well, close counts in horseshoes. Not in driving, where “close” might mean driving down the sidewalk, or turning a little too soon and ending up in a hotel lobby or doughnut shop.

Ceding control is frightening. It’s not even ceding control to a machine, it’s ceding control to a host of networked systems: the car itself, the satellites and the radio systems that transmit the satellite signals, the GPS system software, the geographic databases and the servers they reside on, and other road data like speed limits, construction zones, temporary closures… which you hope are swiftly and accurately reported and available to the GPS. I will bet I’m just scratching the surface here, and the more complex anything is, the more opportunity there is for malfunctions.

On the other hand, I do see a lot of potential here for the blind, the handicapped, the elderly. Imagine the freedom that a truly autonomous car could grant: commuting to work, to appointments, grocery shopping, a night out with friends, road trips to visit family or go on vacation… all previously impossible without rides from friends or the inconvenience of public transportation.

And yes, I even see a lot of potential for accommodating those who really would rather do something other than driving their cars. So you’d rather Skype with your kids or work on your office briefing, and leave the driving to the car? I’m all for it, if we can come up with a truly reliable system.  Meanwhile, I’d really prefer to do my own driving.