Tesla Admits Autopilot Involved in Montana Crash
Automaker Tesla has confirmed that its autopilot function was activated when a Tesla car crashed earlier this week.
The Model X car collided with a guardrail near Whitehall, Montana. Neither the driver nor passenger was hurt. According to the Detroit Free Press, Trooper Jade Schope said the driver, whom he declined to identify, had activated the Autopilot driver assist system at the start of his trip in Seattle.
A spokeswoman for Tesla told the BBC that although the autopilot function was engaged, the driver was not using it properly. “The data suggests that the driver’s hands were not on the steering wheel,” she said, “as no force was detected on the steering wheel for over two minutes after autosteer was engaged—even a very small amount of force, such as one hand resting on the wheel, will be detected.”
The spokeswoman added that “Autosteer…is best suited for highways with a center divider. We specifically advise against its use at high speeds on undivided roads.” The vehicle in the accident was being driven on an undivided mountain road.
The California-based car company has been under scrutiny for its delay in disclosing another accident involving the autopilot feature. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Tesla’s failure to report to the public that in May a driver in Florida had been killed in a crash with another vehicle while the autopilot was engaged. The company did not publicly disclose the accident until June 30, nine days after it made its report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Tesla accepted funds from investors in the interim.
“I didn’t know there had been an autopilot incident at the time of the fundraising,” said Tesla CEO Elon Musk. “What we told the NHTSA was just that somebody died—it wasn’t that there was an autopilot incident.”
The NHTSA is conducting its own investigation into the Florida accident, requesting information on all updates given to the autopilot system since its launch last year and on planned future updates.
Tesla’s insistence that the autopilot feature was not being used correctly in the Montana crash is spurious and contradictory. An autopilot, or “autosteer,” feature on a vehicle inherently invites a driver to relinquish control of the vehicle and become occupied with other matters, owner’s manuals notwithstanding. After all, the hype about autopilot systems is that they will make driving safer, removing human error from the highways. That implies removing human hands from the steering wheel.
This technology has absorbed the auto industry and has been touted for years in the media. It is coming whether we are ready or not. And apparently, whether it is ready or not. In time, it may indeed reduce highway fatalities. But safety is not the only question this new technology begs. There is also the issue of control.
In his diaries, Ulysses S. Grant recounts the first time he rode on a train. The train was going 18 miles per hour, he says, and he was terrified. We can smile at Grant’s fear, but we should also consider that he was right to be afraid. Mechanized travel—the railroad, the automobile, the airplane—has formed the very fabric of our world, but it ha also left countless casualties in its wake. And that is without thinking of the carnage brought about by mechanized warfare, which would have horrified Grant. Society has accepted the danger and the loss of modern transportation for all the benefits it brings.
But the economic system we have has not primarily made use of mechanization, industrialization or automation in order to make life easier. Rather, industrialization saw the intensification and rationalization of labor, and automation produces not leisure but unemployment and poverty. “We do not ride upon the railroad,” Thoreau said presciently. “The railroad rides upon us.”
If we cede the matter of safety to the autopilot development in automobiles, how will our economic system make use of our letting go of the wheel? What will be its incentives in a technological environment where we are no longer quite as in control of our journey? I am not thinking of the current autopilot feature on the market, nor do I imagine that five years from now we will be restricted in our travel by some Skynet-like program that steers us where it wants us. But I do suspect that as we surrender a degree of control, we will to that degree surrender it to the will of the corporate program. Where that program will deliver us in ten or twenty years’ time may be a country where there are fewer kicks on Route 66.
Photo source: esquire.com