Tesla’s Self-Driving Heroics Aren’t Special—They’re Normal
The dashcam video begins with Joshua Brown’s Telsa Model S cruising down the highway. Tessy—that’s the car’s name, duh—is in Autopilot mode as Brown, hands resting on the wheel, listens to his Malcolm Gladwell audiobook. Suddenly, a boom lift truck glides across three lanes, headed straight for Tessy.
“I actually wasn’t watching that direction,” Brown writes in the video’s description. “I became aware of the danger when Tessy alerted me with the ‘immediately take over’ warning chime and the car swerving to the right to avoid the side collision.”
Brown and Tessy emerged unscathed, and that sweet juke to the right, deftly executed by Tesla’s Autopilot function, is being heralded as something close to a miracle that “saved” Brown’s life.
The problem with that interpretation is that it bills the non-crash as a singular event, something noteworthy because it’s rare and exciting. (Also: Brown may well have survived a crash, or avoided the truck if he’d been driving himself.) In fact, the awesome news, in the “awe-inspiring” sense of the word, is not that the car saved someone from danger. It’s that the car worked exactly it should have. And even better, the technology that let it spot an oncoming accident and leap to safety is about get a lot more common.
Tesla’s Autopilot feature has been available to the driving public for six months. It uses radar, mounted cameras, and ultrasonic sensors to read road markings and obstacles near and far, keeping the car in its lane and away from bumping other vehicles.
It only works in simple scenarios like highway cruising (it doesn’t recognize traffic signals), but requires the human to handle more complex driving situations.
It’s pretty basic, as far as autonomous technology goes, but it’s the kind of thing that could put a crippling dent in the 33,000 highway fatalities the US suffers each year. As cars with this kind of feature proliferate, it won’t just be about dodging vehicles swinging from lane to lane, it’ll be about stopping that dangerous behavior from happening at all.
Those features won’t open driving to those who can’t already take the wheel (or afford new cars with the latest whizz-bang tech), but they can make the roads far safer for those who ply them today. In 2015, the research firm Ark Invest studied the introduction of automation technology in the aviation industry from the 1960s to the 1980s to predict the decrease of driving deaths in the autonomous vehicle age.
Like with 21st century commercial aviation, the firm says, collisions will not disappear. But “the chances of being hit by a driver who is drunk, asleep, or texting, will be reduced to near zero.”
It’s hard to say how long it will be before humans can completely let go of the wheel, but we are headed for an interim stage in which cars pick up more of the work, and do it without being distracted, or drunk, or tired, or angry. The real takeaway from Joshua Brown’s close call isn’t that Tesla saved him from a scary situation. It’s that those scary situations are soon to be way less common.