No Fixed Abode: What's the Auto-Point of It All?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
no fixed abode what s the auto point of it all

One of the first things any child learns in the modern technological era is that there are tools for which the true purpose is explicitly stated and tools for which the true purpose is hidden behind some obfuscating official language, legal fiction, or disingenuous disclaimer. Examples of the former: shovels, over-and-under trapshooting shotguns, noise-canceling headphones. Examples of the latter: BitTorrent, “professional” lock-picking kits on Massdrop, the Hitachi Magic Wand.

With the simultaneous democratization of tech and increased frequency of tech-related legislation, more and more things are falling into the category of “used for purposes other than intended, or in a manner other than suggested.” Nobody ever lets the FAA know that they’re going to be flying a Phantom drone over a motocross track, nobody ever deletes their MP3s when they sell their CDs back to Half Price Books, and nobody ever takes the Yoshimura pipe off their GSX-R1000 when they leave Willow Springs and ride back home.

From the moment that the Tesla “Autopilot” feature was introduced, with its copious disclaimers and strident request that the owner keep his hands on the wheel and continue to act just like he was driving the thing himself, the whole world has treated Autopilot like it was Napster. Oh, sure, I’m just going to keep looking ahead with my hands on the wheel, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. The near-universal assumption, one I’ve seen echoed by dozens of Tesla owners, is that Autopilot is, in fact, a functioning autopilot system and all the disclaimers are just there to keep the lawyers happy.

What if that’s not the case at all?

Autopilot isn’t the only system of its type; Car and Driver compared three other semi-autonomous cars to the Tesla Model S. It found that although Tesla had perhaps the least capable and impressive hardware for the task — a complaint echoed by Tesla owners — the Model S easily outperformed the BMW, Mercedes, and Infiniti systems. No software engineer would be surprised by that result; Tesla has clearly been through many more iterative cycles of software development than anyone else, and software matters much more than hardware when it comes to autonomous operation at this current point in time.

In C/D’s testing, the Tesla required 29 interventions in a 50-mile loop, the Infiniti required 93, and the Germans split the difference. Twenty-nine interventions in 50 miles isn’t exactly what you’d a call a self-driving car, yet plenty of Tesla owners have used Autopilot on less demanding or better-marked roads to completely divert their attention away from the vehicle’s operation. Watch the video below and then read the critical parts of the description:

I actually wasn’t watching that direction and Tessy (the name of my car) was on duty with autopilot engaged. I became aware of the danger when Tessy alerted me with the “immediately take over” warning chime and the car swerving to the right to avoid the side collision.

Note 2: In case you’re curious, I’m listening to an audiobook in the background. It’s a Malcolm Gladwell book (excellent book).

Second part bolded to show the truthfulness of stereotypes.

Clearly, this driver is treating “Tessy’s” Autopilot capability in the same manner as the latter kind of technology discussed in the opening paragraphs. You can almost hear him thinking, Of course Autopilot works and can be left alone. They wouldn’t release it if it didn’t work. That keep your hands on the wheel stuff is just for lawyers. Go, Tessy! You can do it without me! This is a great example of what I personally call the antibiotic-resistance effect of legal disclaimers and it also reflects the unspoken idea that Autopilot isn’t really useful unless it allows the driver to completely divert his attention to the Internet or a DVD or the thoughtful perusal of a Malcolm Gladwell audiobook.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Tesla is in the middle of discovering the difference between the attitude our society has to ephemeral, unreal tech products like video games or websites and the attitude our society has to something that you pay real money to physically own or operate. At the risk of sounding trite, the primary characteristic of “beta” software is that it is allowed to crash. The alpha release will crash, and the prod release should not crash. The beta is permitted to crash from time to time.

In reality, Tesla’s so-called “beta testing” feature is nothing of the sort. Autopilot logged well over 100 million miles before anybody was killed using it. Try playing any of the large-scale multi-player video games out there in a “beta release” and you will see crashes and failures on a constant basis. Even in the worst-case scenario of failure, Autopilot just slows the car and demands user intervention. Nobody has ever been randomly and unexpectedly steered into a bridge abutment by Autopilot, nor can anybody claim that they were rammed on the freeway by an out-of-control Autopiloted Tesla.

The “beta testing” label, therefore, is just that — a label intended as an aegis of sorts to discourage lawsuits — and the owners are perfectly aware of the fact. No wonder, then, that they treat Tesla’s caveats about having one’s hands on the wheel and one’s attention forward with similar disregard. The average Tesla owner spends his days using his work laptop for personal purposes despite the explicit warnings on his sign-in screen. Then he listens to music that he “ripped” or borrowed from a friend or a public source. Then he prepares to go home and play a video game for which the consequences of failure, on the part of the player or programmer, amount to nothing more than a “respawn.” Is anybody surprised that people are watching movies and surfing the Web while Autopilot has control of the car?

More interesting than that is whether Autopilot has any credible advantages or benefits when you use it exactly as intended: hands on the wheel, eyes ahead, attention on the road. Most people, if you asked them, would laugh. Of course it’s useless if you use it the way you’re “supposed to.” Isn’t everything nowadays? Are any of us taking our iPhone earbuds out every twenty minutes or stretching our hands every ten during office work?

While I can’t speak for the Autopilot feature — the only way I’ll be driving a Tesla any time soon is if I buy one, something that is unlikely to happen in this decade — I can attest that a semi-autonomous car works very well to reduce fatigue and stress. A few months ago, I drove an Acura TLX to Watkins Glen from Ohio in the dead of night. My co-driver for the trip had immediately turned all of the “features” off, but for the last three hundred miles I got behind the wheel and turned them all back on.

The combination of Lane-Keep Assist and distance-estimating cruise control, though they might seem like insignificant or useless features when considered separately, works to all but eliminate driver fatigue during long hauls. I didn’t surf the web or text people while I was driving. Good thing, too, because I saw and avoided two deer over the course of the stint. I just sat back a little bit, kept a hand on the wheel, and relaxed.

Every so often I’d have to steer the car. Maybe once in three to five minutes. Rarely did I offer any throttle or brake input. And it worked brilliantly. We tend to forget all of the little course corrections and throttle adjustments we make during even the most mundane of freeway drives. Semi-autonomous cars take all of that away. Instead, you’re free to simply pay attention to the road and the surroundings, to look around. Used correctly, autonomous features can make you a much better and more attentive driver over long distances.

I feel like a bit of a traitor to automotive enthusiasm when I write nice things about semi-autonomous cars, but the fact is that long-haul freeway trips are nobody’s idea of a great drive anyway. As long as we have the option to turn the feature off, I don’t have any issue with Autopilot. In fact, I can think of one killer application for it, yet to be implemented: Autopilot for trucks used to tow race cars. I have a ten-hour trip to NJMP after work tonight. If I could set the destination and go to sleep while my truck took me and the Neon to New Jersey, would I do it? Absolutely — and I would pay any price, bear any burden, or sign any disclaimer to do it.

[Image: Honda]

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3 of 121 comments
  • BiturboS4 BiturboS4 on Jul 18, 2016

    Curious what you think, Jack, of autonomous features in a manual transmission car? Does the extra element of having to downshift defeat the purpose of automated cruise control?

    • Jack Baruth Jack Baruth on Jul 18, 2016

      I don't think so. I think most cars can handle most freeway situations in sixth nowadays.

  • Maserchist Maserchist on Jul 18, 2016

    Autopilot was foreseen by the "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" at least 40 years ago. The system consisted of a hook on a tow bar conveniently attached to the vehicle in front of you. Hey, it was funny !

  • RHD The price will also be a huge factor. Most websites expect it to start at around 50K. Add in the dealer fees, taxes, markup, options and assorted nonsense, it'll probably easily pass 60 grand. A Chrysler Pacifica starts around 38K. The real test will be if anyone with nostalgia for the old VW Van/Kombi/Station Wagon/Bus/Etc. will be motivated to actually buy one. Once the new and unique wears off, its innate excellence (or lack thereof) will determine its long-term success.
  • Carlson Fan I think it is pretty cool & grew up with a '75 Ford window van so I can attest to their utility. $60K is a lot for any vehicle and I'm not convinced EV's are ready for prime time for a number of reasons. It would make an awesome 2nd or 3rd vehicle in a multi-car household but again the price would keep most from considering it.I agree with the other comments that those who have to have it will buy it and then sales will drop off. Offer a panel version for the commercial market, that could have possibilities.
  • Wjtinfwb Panther Black? or Black Panther? Shaped like a decade old Ford detectives sedan? Seems like an odd way to send out your marquee car...
  • Kwik_Shift Instead of blacked, how about chromed? Don't follow the herd.
  • Carlson Fan Nicest looking dash/gage cluster ever put in any PU truck. After all these years it still looks so good.