No doubt in recent weeks you have heard about several Tesla models that have been in severe and/or fatal accidents with a “driver” at the wheel who was doing other things as the car hurtled down the road at highway speeds. While there is little doubt that our highway safety laws are playing serious catch-up as the speed of vehicle technology increases, you need to understand this iron-clad fact: there are NO fully-autonomous vehicles that are being offered for sale TODAY by the nation’s automakers.
Before I get any deeper into this conversation, let’s first establish what “autonomous” really means when referring to a self-driving car. The best definitions that I have found and continue to use are those issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) several years ago to guide the states with the evolving autonomous technology. While the agency identifies five-levels of vehicle autonomy, , I am only concerned with the description of the highest level for the purposes of this article. Fully autonomous driving is defined as follows by NHTSA:
The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but it’s not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip.
This is NOT a description of Tesla’s Autopilot function. According to the company its system, “functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear. What’s more, you always have intuitive access to the information your car is using to inform its actions”. The driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car. (IMPORTANT NOTE: The law in ALL 50 states holds the driver responsible for vehicle control, regardless of the technology currently employed in the vehicle being operated).
In addition, an Autopilot-equipped Tesla is engineered to steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control. Digital control of motors, brakes, and steering helps avoid collisions from the front and sides, and prevents the car from wandering off the road. Autopilot also enables your car to scan for a parking space and parallel park on command. And the new Summon feature lets you “call” your car from your phone so it can come greet you at the front door in the morning. Autopilot features are progressively enabled over time with software updates.
The system uses active sensors combined with GPS and high resolution digital maps to comprise a mutually reinforcing system that pilots the Tesla along the highway, staying within your lane, even in stop and go traffic. Real time feedback from the Tesla fleet ensures the system is continually learning and improving upon itself.
Now consider a similar new feature to be offered starting in 2017 on the Cadillac CT6 sedan called Super Cruise:
GM’s Super Cruise is designed to allow for hands-off lane following, braking and speed control on the highway, both in bumper-to-bumper traffic as well as uncongested conditions. The automaker has been testing the Super Cruise system for many years. As early as 2012, it demonstrated the system for journalists at its proving grounds in Michigan.
GM perfectly describes Tesla’s Autopilot as similar to its “Super Cruise”, a semi-autonomous driver-assist. It is important to mention that early this year, GM delayed its roll out of the Super Cruise feature . GM CEO Mary Barra said in September 2014, “Getting the technology right and doing it safely is most important, so the exact month of introduction cannot be announced at this time.” Global product chief Mark Reuss said that, “It will come out when it is ready.” GM’s delay underscores the complexity that automakers face in introducing features that allow the driver to take his or her hands off the wheel while letting the car take over.
Tesla Motors recently said it is revising its hands-free Autopilot software to restrict its use under certain conditions, following criticism that the system didn’t work reliably when it was rolled out last year. Tesla said the update will disable the autopilot function on residential streets and on roads that don’t have a dividing line and will limit the car’s speed while in Autopilot mode to five mph over the speed limit.