A driver’s responsibility is to ensure that the vehicle is appropriately positioned within a designated lane and moving at the correct speed, which is determined by posted limits, pace of surrounding traffic, and contextual conditions like weather. The Tesla Autopilot feature enables a vehicle to steer, accelerate, and brake automatically within its lane, alleviating the driver of nearly total decision-making and redirecting the driver’s role to that of a supervisor. But does such a reversal of driving authority mean that Teslas can be “superhuman?”
Elon Musk has stirred up another proverbial hornet’s nest with his recent tweet that Tesla cars outfitted with self-driving tech “can definitely be superhuman.” The notion of a device made by humans that can exceed ordinary human power, achievement, experience, and capacity is eerie, unsettling — and really compelling.
Humans drive using 2 cameras on a slow gimbal & are often distracted. A Tesla with 8 cameras, radar, sonar & always being alert can definitely be superhuman.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 8, 2020
The “2 cameras” to which Musk refers are, of course, human eyes. Our head and neck function in unison as “a slow gimbal.” Sight and perception of our surroundings permit drivers to assess what’s around us and react accordingly. But our skills in this area are perhaps not as good as we assume.
Self-driving vehicles of the future are widely considered to be able to alleviate the limitations of human binocular vision and will potentially lead to less congestion, fewer accidents, and lower stress. Musk hypothesized in an interview last year with MIT researcher Lex Fridman that autonomous driving technology is so advanced that it will soon surpass human driving control. Musk described then how Tesla’s technology is so advanced that, before we know it, allowing humans to steer the vehicle may be more dangerous than relying on Autopilot.
The Tesla website describes Autopilot as follows:
“Eight surround cameras provide 360 degrees of visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors complement this vision, allowing for detection of both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system. A forward-facing radar with enhanced processing provides additional data about the world on a redundant wavelength that is able to see through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead.”
The use of language regarding vision and the latent meanings found within the Tesla website description of Autopilot as a whole are quite revealing. A human’s peripheral visual field extends 100 degrees laterally, 60 degrees medially, 60 degrees upward, and 75 degrees downward — not anywhere close to reaching the extent of Autopilot’s capabilities. With constant improvements (note “updated” in the paragraph above) and possessing the angular span vertically and horizontally to perform an action accurately, like reading or face recognition (“vision”), Autopilot, as described on the Tesla website, affirms — albeit in a more subtle way — Musk’s “superhuman” claim. The “enhanced processing” and “redundant wavelength” complement each other, providing additional data to assure the human formerly known as a driver. The human recognizes that Autopilot is “seeing in every direction simultaneously and on wavelengths that go far beyond the human senses,” according to a Tesla blog post.
“Superhuman” in Culture
The term “superhuman” connotes many meanings. Often, it is ascribed to physical powers beyond typical human strength. Those of us of a particular age remember The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (the latter was my personal favorite :)). In these cases, the protagonists endure shattering injuries that are not only remedied by modern medicine but rebuilt with bionic surgical implants that accentuate typical human faculties like hearing, jumping, running, and throwing.
A recent editorial by Lance Eliot in Forbes suggests that Musk’s description of autonomy as “superhuman” seeps into our imagination as a result of fascination with popular culture super characters from comic books, movies, television, and merchandising. Importantly, though, while the AI techniques here offer progress, they do not provide the human cognitive common-sense reasoning that is essential to humanness.
In mythology, superhumans had the guidance of deities, natural spirits, ancestors, or perfected humans who had power beyond that of ordinary humans. Today’s cultural climate includes a definition of “superhuman” as human augmentation that transcends the natural human body and becomes something more godlike.
Eliot argues that Musk’s intent through attaching the term “superhuman” to an AI system is to provide “a glow of incredible essence, and inch by inch is convincing the public that AI can do wondrous things of a superhuman nature.” The result, Eliot, continues, creates “outsized expectations and sets people up to be misled and less wary of what AI is able to actually do today.”
“Do AI-based true self-driving cars deserve to get the superhuman tribute, and if so, when or how will we know that it is appropriate and fair to do so?” Eliot looks askance at the notion and instead clarifies the distinctions among levels of autonomy, pointing out that “true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own, and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.”
Granted, Musk wasn’t suggesting that currently available AI is doing all of the driving. He’s saying that the hardware available today, with the right software, can drive at a level well above humans.
Final Thoughts about whether Teslas can be Superhuman
Autonomous vehicles are appealing due to the potential enhancements they will be able to offer to people’s way of life. We’ll achieve greater road safety, increased independence, and tremendous environmental gains. Perhaps these are more important than the superlatives that we attach to the technology, yes? “Superhuman” or not, autonomous vehicles will redefine what it means to be a driver. Autopilot is the first real taste that many of us will ever get of that experience, and it’s really, really cool.