On Autopilot . . .

  • December 13, 2023

Every Tesla equipped with the company’s Autopilot system is being recalled because of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) inquiry into crashes associated with its use.

“Autopilot” italicized to emphasis that it’s not a defect – as inferred by NHTSA. It’s exactly as designed.

And as marketed.

What does the term “Autopilot” mean? What, more precisely, do most people take it to mean? Obviously, it is taken to mean the same thing it means in aviation, which is where the term first came into currency. When Autopilot is engaged, the aircraft pilots itself. The pilot is supposed to be monitoring, of course. But that is in aviation – where the pilot is required by law as well as common sense to be monitoring.

As opposed to napping.

It’s still illegal to nap while driving but it’s self-evident that Tesla’s Autopilot system encourages it – and drivers do it because they aren’t pilots. The latter are trained to rigorous standards that largely wash out the incompetent as well as the irresponsible. In contrast, almost literally anyone can obtain a driver’s license, which is more accurately a government-issued ID. Possession of the latter is proof of who you are; not that you are a competent, responsible driver.

Telsa buyers are literally told the car is capable of driving itself. It has Autopilot. They are also told – in fine print – that they are always responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle and that the driver must always be paying attention and always-ready to assume control of the car when Autopilot is engaged.

This is both paradoxical and disingenuous.

If the car is capable of driving itself, then why would the driver need to be always-ready to assume control of the vehicle? If it isn’t, then why tell people it’s self-driving? Put another way: Either the car is capable of self-driving or the driver is responsible for driving it.

You cannot have it both ways.

But that is precisely the way Tesla likes it. Being able to market Autopilot makes Teslas seem more capable than cars that lack it. People are deliberately encouraged to believe that if they buy a Tesla, they will own a self-driving car. They have been encouraged, arguably, to act on this belief – and many have. A number have died – because they decided to take a nap or look something up on their phones and didn’t notice that their Tesla was Autopiloting itself into a bridge abutment or a car parked on the shoulder of the road.

But don’t blame Tesla! Says Tesla. It says right there (read the fine print) that the driver must always be ready to intervene. If he isn’t, then it’s all his fault.

Right. Would this fly if someone were selling cigarettes to 10-year-olds but with a label warning them that smoking is dangerous?

So, what’s the “fix”?

Well, it will likely be the same as the one already in use in other-brand vehicles that have similar “hands free” self-driving technology. Sensors built into the steering wheel can tell if the driver has let go of it and if, after a few seconds, he hasn’t put his hands back on the wheel, the system disengages the “hands-free” self-driving technology – thereby forcing him to drive the car.

Thereby defeating the point of this technology.

What good is “self-driving” technology if you must be ready to drive the car at all times? If you can’t take a nap while the car drives? Arguably, it is very bad – and not just because it’s as silly as having a tool you can’t use – such as a hammer that (read the fine print) must never be used to drive nails into a board.

Self-driving technology encourages drivers not to – by encouraging them to rely on technology that depends on inattentive/distracted drivers to “intervene” when the system glitches or is about to pile-drive the car into a bridge abutment. But such a driver – the term is used loosely – is already not paying much attention, by definition. And it will likely take him a potentially decisive moment longer to recognize there’s a problem and react to it than a driver who had his hands on the wheels at all times as well as his eyes on the road.

But which time it may well already be too late.

Whatever happened to saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety first?

Looks like it comes last – when we’re talking ’bout Tesla. Because Tesla is the tip of the spear of the “electrification” agenda – and for that reason, the federal regulatory apparat turns a blind eye toward Tesla’s dangerous and disingenuous marketing of “self-driving” technology that isn’t, really.

To truly appreciate the duplicity and disingenuousness of the apparat, consider its response to (just one example of many) the infamous catalytic converter test pipe. These were sold – briefly – at auto parts stores. Not to “test” a catalytic converter but to replace it – with a hollow pipe that fit exactly in place of the cat.

It didn’t fly.

How about the way Ford was handled when a tiny handful out of millions of Pintos sold caught fire when struck from behind? As opposed to the handling of the much greater built-in fire-hazard of devices powered by enormous lithium-ion batteries that can erupt in flames when they’re parked?

Never mind.

. . .

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