Idiots Need to Understand That Self-driving Cars Aren't Here Yet

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

With automakers, the Department of Transportation, NHTSA, and Congress all attempting to get self-driving vehicles onto the road as quickly as possible, the autonomous revolution finds itself in a sticky situation. Some motorists are confusing their semi-autonomous technology with an impenetrable safety net. This has resulted in avoidable accidents as drivers assume their high-tech cars can cope with whatever’s thrown at them, and it’s probably going to get worse as more idiots buy them.

We’ve already covered how semi-autonomous features make everyone less-effective behind the wheel and the fatal Tesla Autopilot crash was a story we kept up with for over a year. Investigators ruled that accident was the perfect storm of mishaps, however, there remains a common thread between the two pieces. The driver may have been spared were he not so eager to put his faith into the vehicle’s semi-autonomous system.

On Monday, a Tesla Model S collided with stopped firetruck that was responding to an accident on a freeway in Culver City, California. As you already guessed, the driver told the firefighters that the vehicle was operating in Autopilot mode. While nobody was injured in the crash, it’s another stroke in the ugly portrait of people placing blind trust in a technology they don’t understand. And, boy oh boy, are we just getting started on illustrating this problem.

Over the weekend, a drunk driver who passed out while behind the wheel of his Tesla attempted to assure police everything was fine because the vehicle was “on Autopilot.” According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the man was attempting to cross the Bay Bridge and blacked out in traffic. Presumably, Autopilot responded as it was supposed to in this instance and stopped the car when the vehicle realized the driver had stopped interacting with it. But it doesn’t change the fact that morons continue to think semi-autonomous vehicles can do all the work themselves.

In fact, after searching the web for a grand total of 30 seconds, we found a video where a Model X owner calls Autopilot 2 “ basically full autonomous.” The title of the video even calls the car a “Full Self Driving Model X.” The footage is random collection of hand-held shots of his 1,000-mile road trip while he fails to engage with the vehicle in a safe manner. Since the company got lambasted by Consumer Reports last year, Tesla Motors has been pretty clear that drivers aren’t supposed to take their hands off the wheel and now disables Autopilot if a driver fails to do so after the system makes that request.

Great, except the driver in the aforementioned video found away around that. By securing a bottle of water to the steering wheel, he managed to trick the vehicle’s sensors into thinking he’s still holding onto it — allowing for a hands-free experience. There are a lot of videos like this on YouTube. One, in which a man uses an orange to defeat Tesla’s hands-on safety measure, has over 2.5 million views. [Update: this video has since been removed from the internet]

This cornucopia of stupidity is by no means exclusive to Tesla owners. Plenty of automakers have semi-autonomous systems now. Nissan has ProPliot Assist, Cadillac has Super Cruise, BMW has Traffic Jam Assistant, Audi has Traffic Jam Pilot, Mercedes-Benz has Drive Pilot, and Volvo has Pilot Assist. While the systems all function differently, every single one of them can be confused with full autonomy — even though none of them are.

That’s not to insult the various systems. They are all technological marvels (I’m told) and the first time you use them, you’ll walk away impressed. However, the honeymoon phase quickly evolves into complacency. Then the system suddenly fails and and an accident happens.

While it’s easy to blame automakers for marketing these systems as more comprehensive than they actually are, many are very clear about exactly what the technology can do, and all include some kind of safety measure to ensure drivers don’t check out entirely. But that won’t keep a certain percentage of the population from thinking they’ve just purchased a self-driving car.

Honestly, it’s probably better that these types of drivers have advanced safety systems in place to save them from their own stupidity. There’s plenty of research to back up the usefulness of semi-autonomous aids. However, that doesn’t mean automakers shouldn’t go the extra mile to make absolutely certain customers have a complete understanding of the technology, lest they do something foolish to nullify the safety net they paid extra for.

[Image: Culver City Firefighters Local 1927]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Doublechili Doublechili on Jan 26, 2018

    Considering some of the drivers out there on the roads, I think I might take my chances with the orange....

  • Tandoor Tandoor on Jan 26, 2018

    When you make something safer, people increase their risk taking back up to the same level they were comfortable with before. You see people drive cars with none of these systems while looking at their phones. Now some cars have systems that allow them to completely ignore the road in relative safety. No surprise they are unprepared for when the system can’t handle the situation.

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