By on July 25, 2016

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His company’s product is under investigation by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, but Tesla CEO Elon Musk likes the favorable press the NHTSA gave to its Autopilot system.

Musk tweeted a link to a Wall Street Journal report that quotes NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind praising the semi-autonomous driving system at a Detroit conference last week. The NHTSA is investigating what role Autopilot played in a fatal Florida crash on May 7.

In his speech, Rosekind said the automotive industry “cannot wait for perfect” when it comes to developing self-driving technology. The Autopilot-equipped Model S involved in the Florida crash didn’t recognize a tractor trailer crossing the highway, a fact (admitted by Tesla) that sparked a backlash against the system. Critics also slammed the company’s “beta testing” of an imperfect technology.

“We should be desperate for anything we can find to save people’s lives,” said Rosekind.

The administrator’s comments echo Musk’s feelings about road safety. Musk stands by the technology, insisting that it saves lives and will continue to improve. Despite calls to scrap Autopilot until it can be proven fail-safe, Musk has no plans to abandon the feature. Instead, he plans to help educate drivers on how to operate the system safely.

Road deaths shot up 7.7 percent last year in the U.S., and the NHTSA’s mandate is to reduce them. Low gas prices (and more miles driven) are to blame for the spike in fatalities. In March, Rosekind gave the NHTSA six months to develop a basic set of rules for autonomous vehicles.

Tesla’s Autopilot is also being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Transportation Safety Board.

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14 Comments on “On Autopilot, Elon Musk Has a Friend in NHTSA Chief...”


  • avatar
    Driver8

    As with most tech, the problem isn’t with the tech, but the users. Autopilot is the rich nerd’s version of ‘hey ya’ll, hold my beer and watch this!’.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “We should be desperate for anything we can find to save people’s lives,” said Rosekind.

    That’s an easy statement to make and support, but – like it or not – there is a financial cost that cannot be ignored. Airplane safety is a perfect example – reducing aircraft deaths to zero is impossible if a mfr or airline wants to stay in business. [Interestingly, the simplicity and power of the jet engine dramatically reduced aircraft deaths.]

    I assume he also means that autonomous technology should also result in a *net* savings of people’s lives. One could argue that cell phones have saved many lives, but I could argue that much of the 7.7% increase in road deaths is attributable to texting. So in a broad context, maybe we’re OK with that?

  • avatar

    Glad to hear the NHTSA are tackling the problem with the view to minimize overall road fatalities, not just autonomous fatalities.

    AS part of the ‘set of rules’ for autonomous vehicles I believe there should be a ‘driving test’ autonomous vehicles have to pass, just like human drivers. There has to be a minimum standard. As autonomous systems get better the minimum standard can be raised to increase road safety.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      I have a variation of this idea. Require a higher grade license in order to drive a vehicle with auto-pilot. That really sounds ironic though! And it would probably slow adoption. But that’s the point isn’t it? Make people aware auto-pilot does not mean self-driving.

  • avatar

    Autopilot is in its infancy and already it is capable of so much.

    If I can get into a car drunk and tell it to “take me home” – and it does – that’s revolutionary.

    If I can get into a car injured and tell it to “take me to Hospital” – and it does – that’s revolutionary.

    If I can send a car to pick up in-laws because I can’t stand being in the vehicle with them for long durations of time…

    This system must continue and it must be perfected.

    There will be blood…

    But as it stands, Autopilot is far more trustworthy than the majority of drivers on the road.

    Question: If cops want to pull you over and you’re asleep, how do they get the car to pull over?

    Furthermore: can cops pull you over if the autopilot is driving perfectly and is incapable of traffic violations?

    Furthermooooore: How will states earn money if they can’t charge me $700 for speeding 105 in a 55 – which realistically could support 85 with no problem – but they just lowered it to earn money off of me by charging me a “driver responsibility assessment” for $300 on top of a $500 ticket?

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      The ‘take me home’ function is Level 5 autonomy. Autopilot is currently Level 2, so there is some work to do.

      You ask a very good question about police intervention. That will certainly come up someday.

    • 0 avatar
      brandloyalty

      In the forefront of inter-car communications, police will have the ability to intervene with other cars via that system. So, for instance, no more high-speed chases. And if these things can be done, speeding and similar violations and the resulting tickets will be a thing of the past.

      How will police departments deal with the loss of income? Simple. Vastly lowered operating expenses.

    • 0 avatar
      yamahog

      “Furthermore: can cops pull you over if the autopilot is driving perfectly and is incapable of traffic violations?”

      Yes. Absolutely. The ‘ol ‘you were doing 55 in a 54’.

      I used to commute to a rural area to visit friends and I’d get pulled over about 1 in 6 trips. 99% of the time the officer just wanted to smell my breath and they were totally fine after we had a coherent exchange and my licence and registration checked out.

      On one hand, when autonomous driving becomes more widespread, they might not care about the condition of the driver/passenger in an autonomous car. In the de jure world, they need a reason to pull you over. In the de facto world, the stop is going to go worse if you try to litigate the legitimacy of the stop while you’re pulled over.

      • 0 avatar
        Zykotec

        -‘Sir, are you aware that this is an ‘autonomous only-zone’. Me and my colleague just saw you with your hands on your steering wheel back there’
        -‘But, I was just resting my hands on it for a second, I swear,’
        -‘Sir, We have you on tape, please hand over your license, registration and vehicle data-logger’
        -‘But I was drunk,and this car has an alcometer’
        -Sir,we know those things can be tampered with’

  • avatar
    kefkafloyd

    I’ve said it before in these comment sections, but the advancements and safety gains made in aviation, both in automation and jus plain jane people skills, were paid for in blood. Today, flying is the safest form of travel, but that’s because the runway was paved with the bones of idiot pilots, shortsighted manufacturers, and greedy airlines.

    It is no different in automobiles. Autopilot and other automation systems will, on aggregate, make our roads safer—but they will change the failure modes, and I’m not sure if society at large is ready to accept those failure modes.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    “…cannot wait for perfect…” and “We should be desperate for anything we can find to save people’s lives” are the government worshipper’s answer to everything. There are no good drivers or bad drivers, just drivers. If 100 competent, conscientious drivers must die to save the lives of 101 incompetent fools, go for it. Body count is all that matters. Personal responsibility is irrelevant.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Crap, the Teslites got to Rosekind.

    He’s going to have to start his staff’s jacket lapels over backwards to make sure there are no hidden party pins.

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    “Rosekind said the automotive industry “cannot wait for perfect” ”

    THIS is what makes me keep kicking my cat!
    Another strawman argument!

    Is this not the equivalent of the DNC working for another anointed greenie Obama loved one? Is this not the NHTSA only without Wasserman? Grease the wheel for the EV Musk.

    Hell…

    NOBODY wants to wait for perfect. Everybody is for the best and now.

    We JUST want to not be manipulated with false advertising.

    Autopilot is nothing more than a background safety system that perhaps is farther ahead of others. And even this might be braggadocio. I dunno enough about all the systems now in use.
    .
    Perhaps others systems are just as good and work well in the background and are not used as misleading sales aids.

    As long as you need to keep your friggin hands on the wheel and basically drive and ready to take complete control in nano seconds…it is NOT autopilot!

    And the driver needs to be driving.

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