Does “Autopilot” Really Mean Self-Driving?

Tesla incorporates its “Autopilot” hardware into all of the new cars it sells, and has installed this technology in all of its vehicles since October 2016. This hardware utilizes a combination of cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and radar to increase both the driver’s and the vehicle’s awareness while on the road. The information collected from these sources is compiled by an on-board computer within the car which allows the car to perform autonomous tasks such as matching the vehicle’s speed with that of the surrounding traffic, switching lanes, and navigating roads and lane markings.

Tesla states that its automobiles, “have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” Company management also believes that the “probability of safety [with Autopilot is] at least twice as good as the average human driver.” This technology bears a vague resemblance to the auto-pilot widely in use on aircraft today. While a pilot is still required to oversee and manage the movements of the plane, the plane is able to pilot itself.

Following accidents which involved Tesla vehicles engaged in Autopilot mode, the Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety (a consumer advocacy group and industry watchdog organization), Jason Levine, questioned the advertised capabilities of the Autopilot system in comparison to its on-the-road performance, saying, “Tesla has repeatedly exaggerated the autonomous capabilities of its Autopilot technology, boosting sales at the expense of consumer safety.”

John M. Simpson, Privacy and Technology Project Director of Consumer Watchdog, stated that Tesla has “consistently and deceptively hyped its technology.” The Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog are advocating for a U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation into Tesla’s use of the name “Autopilot.”

The American Automobile Association (AAA) also called for the adoption of common, clear naming, after the release of their study which found that 73 percent of American drivers would be “too afraid” to ride in a self-driving car. In addition, AAA advocated for the development and implementation of a classification system for all autonomous driving technologies. Greg Brannon, the Director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations at AAA commented that, “There are sometimes dozens of different marketing names for today’s safety systems…learning how to operate a vehicle equipped with semi-autonomous technology is challenging enough without having to decipher the equipment list and corresponding level of autonomy.”

The Autopilot page on Tesla’s website incorporates statements such as, “every driver is responsible for remaining alert and active when using Autopilot and must be prepared to take action at any time,” and “it is not possible to know exactly when each element of the functionality described above will be available.” However, Mike Ramsey, an analyst focused on self-driving technology at the Gartner international IT research, advisory, and consulting firm gave a different perspective. He claimed that “the system as it is now tricks you into thinking it has more capability than it does. It’s not an autonomous system.”

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated in 2015 its intention to:

“Conduct research on the various levels of vehicle automation to support their rapid introduction and help provide the foundation for their future deployment. We [NHTSA] are encouraged by the potential for significant safety benefits at all levels…when and if NHTSA concludes there is a need for Federal safety standards concerning any aspect of these technologies, our research will provide important support for those standards.”

NHTSA has yet to comment on whether or not it deems new regulation necessary for Tesla’s Autopilot self-driving technology.

Photo credit: Tesla Press Kit, owner/uploader: Alexis Georgeson.

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