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Another Autonomous Vehicle Accident Causes People to Question the Safety of this Technology
Yet another obstacle in the heretofore tumultuous progression of the self-driving, or autonomous, vehicle’s road to success has presented itself. This week, in Laguna Beach, CA, a Tesla sedan purported to be in autopilot mode crashed into a parked police car. Of course, Tesla’s response is that the autopilot mode is not meant to replace an attentive driver, but merely works to support the human driver. In this most recent incident, the driver suffered only minor injuries, but his vehicle was totaled in the crash. This unfortunately is not the first accident supposedly caused by autonomous driving software, nor is it the first incident to involve a Tesla. Earlier this year, in Mountain View, CA, father of two, Walter Huang lost his life when his 2017 Tesla Model X drove into an unprotected edge of concrete median that was missing the guardrail.
This vehicle was also shown to be in autopilot mode and the family of the deceased is in the middle of a wrongful death lawsuit with the high-end vehicle manufacturer. Despite these eerily similar occurrences, both Tesla and CEO Elon Musk are adamant that the car’s autonomous feature is not to blame.
The company and outspoken Musk have both warned those that want to utilize the autopilot feature that it is absolutely not a self-driving system, merely a hands-on assistance platform. In both instances, Tesla claims that the driver did not place his hands on the wheel within the required amount of time, so the accidents are human error and not system negligence.
There is a warning that displays on the screen when the autopilot mode is first engaged that reminds the driver that he/she must still remain attentive and prior to the fatal incident involving Huang, there were multiple warnings displayed reminding the driver to return his hands to the wheel. Those not in support of this advanced technology are arguing that the company is choosing to victim-blame versus discuss the real issue at hand. However, it seems that the automakers producing vehicles with these features are simply pleading that it should only be used as intended.
Even Musk admits that “it’s important to emphasize it will never be perfect. Nothing in the real world is perfect.” He goes on to say that benefits however, far outweigh the risks and he believes “that long-term it can reduce accidents by a factor or ten. So there are ten fewer fatalities and tragedies and serious injuries, and that’s a really huge difference.” Naysayers will claim that of course, these numbers won’t add up if people don’t use the system correctly. A driver is already dealing with so many distractions that the idea of an autonomous system reducing some of the driver’s culpability may allow drivers to become unsafely complacent, making the roads even more dangerous for everyone.
With more and more automakers introducing different levels of autonomous driving systems, it will be interesting to follow the statistics. Of course, there will be more situations of self-driving vehicle accidents the more they are on the roads, but if overall serious accidents numbers reduce with time, then maybe Musk’s prediction will prove correct.