Waymo Comments on Autopilot Crash, Blames Driver
While the investigation into Tesla’s most recent Autopilot-rated fatality continues, Waymo chimed in to remind everyone that the company’s self-driving system isn’t actually self-driving at all. That almost makes it sound like the Google offshoot is coming to the defense of Tesla Motors. However, the truth of the matter is this was a golden opportunity for Waymo to sneak in another humblebrag that its autonomous technology is the genuine article and that most of its competitors are playing catch-up.
It’s a valid point. We shouldn’t forget that Tesla’s Autopilot is not representative of true autonomy and the burden of safety still falls squarely on the driver. But the manufacturer didn’t always market it that way, and only updated the system to require hands on the wheel after the first fatality. This incident is different from the recent Uber crash in Tempe, Arizona. But just how different is debatable and largely dependent on what qualifies as “self-driving” to the average person.
“Tesla has driver-assist technology and that’s very different from our approach,” explained Waymo CEO John Krafcik last week, before Tesla revealed that Autopilot was engaged during the Model X crash. “If there’s an accident in a Tesla, the human in the driver’s seat is ultimately responsible for paying attention. We don’t know what happened here, but there was no self-driving.”
An accurate statement but it doesn’t take into account the full picture. Driving aids allow motorists to place a lot of faith in their vehicles’ on-board safety systems, more than enough to let their guard down. In that respect, any wreck involving advanced assist features mimics a central aspect of the Uber crash — a driver who checked out entirely and allowed the vehicle to do all of the work until it failed.
Besides, there are a subset of Tesla drivers who will go to incredible lengths to continue driving their cars hands-free on the expressway. We’ve seen how-to videos of owners affixing a water bottle or orange to the steering wheel, fooling the car’s computer into thinking they are human hands. It’s wildly unsafe but shows the ridiculous lengths people are willing to go to not to have to drive themselves. But we don’t know what Wei Huang was doing in the moments leading up to the fatal March 23rd crash. The destroyed Model X’s computer logs only showed he was using Autopilot and did not have his hands on the wheel for roughly six seconds before impact.
No, Tesla’s Autopilot is not autonomous and we need to remember that. But the mere fact that it allows drivers to operate the vehicle hands-free, even for short periods of time, still complicates the issue of who is to blame. The average motorist isn’t going to presume they cannot trust the hardware on a vehicle they’ve purchased with “advanced driving technology.” If it’s there, they will attempt to use it. And if it works once, they will assume it will continue to function thusly.
This is an industry-wide problem. Every automaker promoting this kind of technology, whether it’s fully autonomous or not, needs to be incredible careful as to how it’s implemented. Consumers will put their faith into these systems if there is even the faintest shred of self-driving hype and, when it fails, they’ll be the ones paying the price. That doesn’t automatically place the burden of responsibility on auto manufacturers and tech firms; each case is totally unique. But if they all feel a little guilty whenever a customer trusts their safety hardware too much and dies as a result, they’d probably be justified.
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