Tesla Autopilot Figures In Two Recent Highway Incidents In California

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On January 19, officers from the California Highway Patrol found a Tesla Model S parked on the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. Inside, they discovered the driver passed out behind the wheel. He told authorities he wasn’t driving, the car was since he had activated Autopilot. That excuse didn’t serve him very well as he was arrested and carted off to jail where he was booked on suspicion of driving under the influence.

On January 22, another Tesla Model S slammed into a fire truck parked in the breakdown lane on the 405 expressway in Culver City, California. Emergency workers were assisting another motorist whose car had broken down at the time. Once again, the driver claimed he was not at fault, as he had activated Autopilot and was not technically driving the car at the time of the crash.

The Los Angeles Times reports the National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team of investigators to California to examine why the Tesla did not bring itself to a stop in time to avoid the collision. The NTSB last investigated Tesla and its Autopilot system in 2016 after Joshua Brown was involved in a fatal collision with a tractor trailer on a Florida highway. The Board cleared the company at the time, saying the system was never designed to detect a large vehicle crossing the road in front of it.

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There are two factors for the NTSB to consider. First is whether the Autopilot system worked correctly. The second is why the emergency forward braking system, which is designed to operate whether or not Autopilot is in operation, did not perform as expected. There is one positive to take away from the crash — no one was injured when the Tesla piled into the rear of a fire engine at 65 mph. That in and of itself is a testament to the integrity of the Model S chassis.

“Autopilot is intended for use only with a fully attentive driver,” Tesla told the Washington Post. After the Joshua Brown fatality, Tesla went to great lengths to warn its owners that they must remain awake, aware, and involved in the driving process at all times. Multiple visual and audible warning signals have been added to the Autopilot software, including a pair of hands — popularly known at the red hands of death — that appear on the visual screen in front of the driver if the system detects a lack of input from the driver.

Some drivers have attempted to fool the system by duct taping a glove to the steering wheel or placing an orange between their leg and the wheel to mimic having a hand on the wheel, actions which endanger the lives of other drivers and should be considered criminal offenses.

Cadillac may have a better idea. Its new Super Cruise system, now available on the CT6 sedan, has a small camera mounted on the steering column that monitors the driver’s eyes and head while the system is engaged. If it detects prolonged inattention, it can deactivate the system and bring the car to a stop in the breakdown lane. Why other manufacturers, including Tesla with its array of cameras mounted all over the exterior of the car, haven’t incorporated this relatively simply solution to distracted or impaired driving is a mystery.

They spend millions designing software that can detect house cats and wallabies but almost none that monitor drivers to determine if they are actively engaged in the driving process. It’s long past time they did so. Drunk driving is still a major contributor to highway fatalities. Reasonable and rational systems to detect impaired driving could save more lives than seatbelts and airbags.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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