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Tesla Autopilot: Self-Driving Servant Or Assisted Suicide?

Tesla Autopilot: Self-Driving Servant Or Assisted Suicide?

June 23, 2018

Tesla and its electric cars have clearly changed the automotive industry. This upstart tech company has shown the established players in the car business that electric cars can be so much more than uninspiring transportation appliances.

Tesla vehicles have become desirable status symbols, outselling traditional high-end German luxury cars. They are truly high-performance vehicles, capable of out-accelerating just about anything else on the road. They have long-range batteries, backed up by a dedicated nationwide charging network. Planning a long trip in a Tesla? No problem!

These are all remarkable achievements, which no other vehicle manufacturer has come close to attaining. But Tesla has added one specific high-tech feature to its vehicles, one that has brought it a great deal of negative and unwanted attention.

That feature is known as Autopilot.

A steady stream of Autopilot-related incidents and accidents has called into question what this feature really is, what it can do, and what it can’t. Let’s take a closer look.

Is Tesla Autopilot A Self-Driving Technology?

The answer to this question is…no. Autopilot 8.1, the second generation of the Autopilot system, is also known as Enhanced Autopilot. It has been available since late 2017. A $5,000 option, it uses four cameras, advanced radar, and 12 ultrasonic sensors to detect lane lines and surrounding objects, providing a continuous 360 degrees of visibility. It is capable of all this:

  • Keeping car within lane while matching speed to traffic conditions
  • Steering through curves in the road
  • Automatically changing lanes on highway
  • Avoiding collisions from vehicles in other highway lanes
  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Automatic parallel and perpendicular parking
  • Coming out of a garage when summoned

But Tesla makes it clear that the driver must pay attention to the road at all times while Autopilot is in operation, in case taking control becomes necessary. Tesla specifically identifies its Autopilot as a “driver assistance feature,” but many owners have taken the meaning of “Autopilot” too literally. It seems that they really want to believe that Autopilot is an autonomous self-driving system. These Tesla owners have set out to prove it, in some truly dubious ways.

Bad Autopilot Behavior By Tesla Owners

When in Autopilot mode, a firm grip on the steering wheel is necessary. Not doing this results in a warning, followed by the vehicle slowing to a stop with the flashers on, if the driver does not hold onto the wheel. Some drivers have tried to fool the Autopilot by using devices that apply pressure to the steering wheel rim. This is a very bad idea.

Some foolhardy Tesla owners have even left the driver’s seat unoccupied, while they ride in the passenger seat with the vehicle on Autopilot! Many others browse their email and messages on their phones from behind the wheel, instead of watching the road ahead. Many YouTube videos attest to this risky behavior.

One particular Tesla driver died after letting his vehicle run on Autopilot in a poorly marked, dangerous construction zone, and without paying attention, resulting in a deadly head-on collision with a concrete barrier.

You can’t blame it all on the car. There’s an old joke that comes to mind:

Q. What’s the most dangerous part of a car?

A. The nut behind the wheel!

Self-Driving Teslas Are Coming…At A Later Date

All Tesla vehicles produced after October 19, 2017 can be equipped with Full Self-Driving Capability. This is a $3,000 option, which must be purchased with the $5,000 Enhanced Autopilot. Full Self-Driving Capability will use four additional cameras to provide fully autonomous driving – for real.

Both short and long trips will be possible, with absolutely no driver involvement. Simply set your destination in your Tesla’s navigation system and the car will do the rest. It will even be able to charge at Supercharger network stations without the need for the driver to get out and plug the charger into the vehicle!

The World Is Not Yet Ready For Self-Driving Cars

But even though the hardware is already being built into Tesla vehicles, the software is a long way from being sent out in an over-the-air update.

This is primarily because self-driving technology is way ahead of the self-driving regulatory environment. Comprehensive rules have yet to be made for this brave new world, and there are 50 different state governments, each of whom has control over its own streets, roads, and highways. We have a long way to go. Here’s how Tesla explains the current situation on its website’s Autopilot page:

“Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot software has begun rolling out and features will continue to be introduced as validation is completed, subject to regulatory approval. Every driver is responsible for remaining alert and active when using Autopilot, and must be prepared to take action at any time.”

In the meantime, there will be more and more “driver assistance” features available as standard equipment on vehicles in all price ranges. These electronically controlled systems are relatively inexpensive to build into new vehicles. But these extremely helpful driver aids will continue to require that drivers remain attentive to what is going on in the driving environment.

Self-driving Tesla enthusiasts, you will have to wait a while longer for true autonomous vehicles.