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No Turning Back on Autonomous Driving

by Roger Lanctot | 7月 01, 2016

Politicians will tell you that Fridays are reserved for announcements (defeats, resignations, indictments) intended to be ignored or lost in the end of week news sink.  In that context, the Friday before the U.S. Fourth of July three-day weekend may be regard as second only to the Friday before Christmas as an ideal opportunity to bury an unpleasant bit of news.

This is why I found it puzzling that BMW, Intel and Mobileye chose this particular Friday to announce a major new strategic cooperation around autonomous driving.  You can find the Webcast for the 10 a.m. event being held in Munich here: http://www.live.bmwgroup.com/2016wel2/index.html

In light of the first fatal crash involving Tesla's Autopilot, the timing of this news event now seems oddly prescient.  With a little luck, Tesla's and Mobileye's most virulent critics will be off on vacation somewhere and unavailable to rain on the autonomous driving parade.

To date, Tesla has proven to be the Teflon-coated auto maker.  Tesla's have caught fire, been shredded in crashes, and seen in-the-field hardware retrofits and significant over-the-air software updates to fix flaws big and small or add or enhance features and functions - while the company has danced between the regulatory raindrops avoiding high profile recalls or even a sales cease and desist order.  (Of course, many U.S. states do not allow the sales of Tesla vehicles, most notably Michigan.)

The latest apparent autopilot failure will surely be parsed and analyzed by no less than the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has initiated an investigation, and Tesla itself.  Tesla has not only been fairly Teflon-coated, it has also been fairly transparent, but this trial will be the ultimate test.  A life was lost for the first time.

The sad reality of the situation, aside from the loss of life, is that this latest development is likely to cause some safety advocates in the industry to hit their own personal emergency brake.  Rather than seeking a deeper understanding of what went wrong - sensor failure, software failure, sunglare, driver distraction - they will insist that Tesla was in the wrong and that the time has come to shut down all of this self-driving nonsense.

Let's be clear about one thing.  The cat is out of the bag.  The horse is out of the barn.  The autopilot is on the road.  Advanced safety systems have saved lives and are saving lives but drivers are still obligated to pay attention and remain in control.  Even Tesla's require a hand on the steering wheel at least part of the time - meaning the driver is expected to pay attention and participate in the driving task even in autopilot mode.

Regulators and researchers are fond of blaming drivers for 90% of crashes, and yet we all want humans to remain in the driver's seat paying attention.  So maybe it's time we stopped blaming drivers and start trying to better understand how to better help drivers be better at what they do so well.  The reality is that it is human drivers that will and are teaching the machines how to drive "better" than the humans.

This BBC report includes a link to a video recorded by the driver killed in the crash showing how Tesla's autopilot prevented a collision with a truck:  http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-36680043  It is life-saving performance like that that likely contributed to a sense of over-confidence in the system, perhaps.

Let's see what BMW, Intel and Mobileye have to say today about their cooperation - and let's avoid the hysterical reactions that might cause us to turn away from the substantial progress that has been made to-date along the technological path to universal collision avoidance.  Tesla now faces its greatest test of transparency.  In the process we will all learn a little more about the technology that promises over the long term to steadily reduce the 1.2M deaths suffered every year on roadways around the world.  It is a turning point for the industry, but there is no turning back from the pursuit of safer driving and safer cars.

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