As predicted, by me, the anti-Tesla and anti-autonomous vehicle forces are gathering in the wake of the recent fatal Tesla Model S crash in Florida. The rising resistance arrives one week in advance of next week’s Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco – setting the stage for a spirited debate.
Consumer Reports has now joined the chorus or critics which already included Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen and former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator; Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety; Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Safety and Reliability; and John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog – all of whom collaborated on a letter calling for President Obama to stop his “administration’s undue haste to get autonomous vehicle technology to the road” until enforceable safety standards are in place.
At the core of the debate is a struggle for control of or the presence of the steering wheel in the car. The discussion has taken on mechanical, moral, ethical and philosophical dimensions and is not likely to be resolved by regulators. But more on that in a moment.
Consumer Reports is urging Tesla to disable the automatic steering feature in its autopilot system. The request is part of a broader critique of Tesla’s autopilot system including its misleading name and the nature of its deployment in the market. This is just the latest episode in CR’s ongoing love-hate relationship with the Model S which it has praised with its highest safety ratings and criticized for reliability issues.
What is most interesting about the CR request is that CR completely takes for granted the fact that Tesla could readily delete this feature from its cars – a feat no other auto maker in the world is capable of duplicating today. The assumption is that the cars will be more acceptable, and presumably safer, if the driver is forced to do all the steering.
CR wants auto steer in the Tesla to be reprogrammed to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel – a requirement that continues to be hotly debated throughout the industry and by regulators around the world all the way to the United Nations. It is no surprise that a host of steering wheel sensing systems are currently on their way to the market along with a wide range of driver monitoring systems.
CR wants Tesla to force its drivers to keep control – even though researchers keep telling us that the machines do a better job of driving than the humans. Of course, Google wants to remove the steering wheel altogether.
CR is also asking Tesla to fully test safety systems before public deployment. It is hard to imagine that Tesla failed to test its autopilot function before deploying it. What CR has in mind is cars driving on tracks or other off-road settings.
Unfortunately, off-road testing in faux driving environments like Michigan’s mCity are almost a complete waste of time. The data gathered in such faked scenarios is virtually worthless for use in real driving situations.
It is sad, but true, that Google and Tesla have it right in testing on real roads in real driving situations. There is simply no way to replicate or recreate one-of-a-kind driving events or novel situations including coping with intersections and pedestrians and weather. The only way to tackle automated driving is to take it head on – pun intended.
Finally, CR wants Tesla to stop calling its driving assistance system “autopilot” since this is creating unrealistic expectations among consumers. Tesla defends the name, indicating no inclination to change it or its deployment, by comparing it to the autopilot function in aircraft which is in use when conditions are appropriate. This is an unfortunate comparison given the fact that airline pilots receive substantial amounts of training – something most drivers never do.
Some critics suggest that the capabilities of autopilot tempt drivers into misusing the technology with potentially fatal consequences. The problem with this argument is that Tesla did not invent driving mischief. Drivers have always done silly and dangerous things with cars. The critics may as well ask Tesla to put an end to bad driving behavior.
The issue central to discussions at the Automated Vehicles Symposium 2016 is control of the steering wheel. A cursory reading of the latest revision of United Nations Economic Commission for Europe “Uniform Provisions Concerning the Approval of Vehicles with Regard to Steering Equipment” (http://tinyurl.com/hqppz3y) makes clear the challenge at hand.
New technologies are introducing an increasing variety of sensor-based inputs to the process of controlling the steering of a car up to and including communications received from roadside equipment wirelessly communicating with a vehicle. Driver assist systems within the vehicle are increasingly working to keep cars within their chosen lane and to avoid collisions.
At the same time, regulations require the driver to maintain contact with the steering wheel. But in a scenario where steering is assisted by sensors and safety systems, a driver keeping his hands on the steering wheel is more likely to cause a crash – as in the case of the Cruise Automation driver who grabbed the steering wheel sending his vehicle into a parked car.
The regulations and the regulators are hopelessly lost in resolving this contradiction. Our mind tells us to let the safety systems do their work, but our heart (and the regulations and safety advocates) tell us to keep our hands on the wheel.
If the scientists and regulators are correct – that the machines can drive better than the humans – then the regulations will have to be modified. As I wrote last week, there is no turning back on the road to automated driving. You should keep your eyes on the road, but it’s time to take your hands OFF the wheel. (Apologies to Jim Morrison of “The Doors.”)
Roger C. Lanctot is Associate Director in the Global Automotive Practice at Strategy Analytics. More details about Strategy Analytics can be found here: https://www.strategyanalytics.com/ac…e#.VuGdXfkrKUk