The Problem, Or The Excuse, Depending On Your Point Of View
In a recent article, I covered yet another study that showed us the Level 2 attention problem. I know many Tesla owners want to deny this, but in terms of attention and feeling tired, it’s more difficult to monitor a Level 2 system than to manually drive or use cruise control. I’ve experienced this, the IIHS has seen this in studies, and NASA has seen it in its latest study, among others. It’s also something experts predicted decades ago when dealing with automated systems.
On top of this attention problem, there’s the issue of calibrating trust. Responsible owners know that a Level 2 system can’t be left to its own devices, but there’s an issue where Level 2 systems can be “too good.” Obviously, we all want our Level 2 systems in our cars to be their best (which is why I put “too good” in quotes), but inexperienced users or those mislead by idiots (IOW, autonowashing) can see how good a system is and start to have too much faith in it. This leads to situations where increasingly better systems go through a “valley” of miscalibrated trust before they get good enough to deserve the trust.
Really, these two problems are related in many cases, and can compound each other. People who trust a system more than its designers intended (or should have intended) end up thinking that a Level 2 system is an acceptable substitute to sleep, or think that distractions like a phone are within the system’s capabilities.
Some manufacturers deal with this issue by using a driver monitoring system (DMS) to make sure they’re paying attention to the road. Others deal with it using a torque sensor to make sure that the driver (at least in theory) has a hand on the wheel. Most systems can be defeated with minimal effort, or just don’t work all that well to begin with.
Here Come The Regulators
We’ve been hearing a growing chorus of safety advocates, industry groups (funded by car manufacturers), and short sellers all calling for the United States government and other governments to come down on Tesla for Autopilot and the FSD Beta. Now, NHTSA is responding with a very carefully designed investigation that changes the goals of automotive regulation while using America’s love for public safety personnel to make critics of the investigation look bad.
I’m not going to be the crazy Tesla fan and say it’s all a conspiracy against Tesla and that the concerns are unfounded, but I’m also not going to be naïve and pretend that everyone’s intentions are pure, either. There’s a sane middle ground where we can acknowledge that there’s a problem and also know that opportunists are taking advantage of the problem (and exaggerating it).
Whatever the motivations are, the people pushing to heavily regulate Tesla’s (and possibly other manufacturers’) L2 systems do seem to be gaining headway. It’s well known that Biden has it out for Tesla because Tesla’s workforce isn’t unionized, and Democrats already tend to be a lot less hesitant to bring the regulation hammer down than Republicans.
On top of that, the automotive industry (and the unions for the Big 3 automakers) really, really doesn’t want to transition to electric too quickly. Large bureaucracies don’t change easily. Complex, outdated supply chains are even harder. Unions fear that jobs will be lost because the cars have far fewer moving parts. So, these entities do what every slow, inflexible corporate monster does: bring the regulators in. After all, they can afford the armies of blood-sucking lawyers and soulless bean counters it takes to deal with complex and contradictory regulation, while smaller competitors struggle under the weight.
Is this a moral strategy? Is this ethical? Does it follow the spirit of the law? Is it something that belongs in a “free market” system? Is it something a socialist or progressive who isn’t a hypocrite would approve of?
The answer, of course, to all of these questions is not only “No,” but “Hell no!,” but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be stopped. The Good Ol’ Boys Club has been getting away with this nonsense for decades, and at no point has a critical mass of their fans and supporters ever seriously questioned it. We’re too committed to our tribalism to call any of this stuff as we see it. Even people who see it have to preface their criticism with “I LOVE President Biden, but…”
Even if I’m way off base here, and the intentions of all involved are the purest of pure, it’s still pretty apparent that the effort to heavily regulate Level 2 systems is progressing.
What If We Can’t Stop Heavy-Handed Regulation?
If public pressure and sunshine aren’t enough to stop the regulators from coming down hard on Level 2 systems instead of doing their jobs, we could very easily see Tesla’s Autopilot and similar systems get banned, or subjected to some sort of recall that heavily gimps the systems. Or, we could see ridiculous overly prescriptive regulations that require specific systems (radar must be used, a specific type of DMS, etc) instead of meeting a safety standard, that make it too costly for a company like Tesla to retrofit into every AP car since 2014.
It may be that time is running out for Level 2 systems. The time where they can be readily sold without heavy-handed regulation could be coming to an end.
Levels 3-5 Is Probably The Way Out Of This Mess
Truth be told, moving on to better systems addresses all of the safety issues that are being raised with Level 2 systems.
A Level 3 system may need a driver to take over, but it’s supposed to be good enough to give the driver advanced warning that they’ll be needed, or the car is able to safely pull over if the driver isn’t available for any reason (as opposed to stopping in travel lanes, a dangerous “solution”). With a L3 system, it doesn’t really matter that much if the driver falls asleep or isn’t paying any attention, because the system doesn’t require that.
Level 4 systems are better in that they don’t ever require a driver to take over, but they’re still limited in where they can drive, and won’t leave the places they’re designed to work, or won’t be able to continue if conditions get too bad.
Level 5 is even better in that it could work on any road under all conditions (within reason).
If Tesla could even make the leap to Level 3, having a car that can do the driving and give the driver some advanced notice (and a failsafe “pull over” program if the human doesn’t take over), that would be enough to get the regulators and safety advocates off their backs for good.
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