The Self-Driv­ing Car ThaT CoulDn’T Drive!

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - INDULGE -

TESLA DRIVER dies in first fa­tal crash while us­ing auto-pi­lot mode’. This head­line or deriva­tions of it have been com­ing in at the speed of light. The rea­sons why it has made such big news are man­i­fold. It’s the first fa­tal crash for an auto-pi­lot car, it’s a huge set­back for the self-driv­ing car in­dus­try and it’s dev­as­tat­ing news for the first-user geeks and nerds. But within it lies an­other story. A story of push­ing the lim­its of tech­nol­ogy be­fore it is ready, try­ing to be dif­fer­ent and de­fy­ing auto in­dus­try con­ven­tions just to stay ahead and more im­por­tantly just how silly it is to have un­proven tech like this be­ing opened to the public and call­ing it a beta test.

Un­tested tech­nol­ogy put to use to beat com­pe­ti­tion leads to tragedies like the Tesla crash


Beta tests are what you do with a piece of soft­ware or an un­re­leased app or maybe even a pro­to­type phone. But a beta fea­ture that al­lowed con­trol of a car and ended up tak­ing a life? Tesla Mo­tors and its very fa­mous founder Elon Musk have al­ways por­trayed them­selves as un­con­ven­tional, ahead of the curve and more in­no­va­tive than any other car maker. And in mak­ing sure that ev­ery­one un­der­stood that, an au­topi­lot self-driv­ing fea­ture was in­tro­duced in the Tesla ing a Harry Pot­ter movie), work on your lap­top or even chat on your phone. This easy se­duc­tion of cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy and the false sense of se­cu­rity it es­tab­lishes is when things get dan­ger­ous. The Tesla auto-pi­lot sys­tem al­lows the car to keep it­self in a lane, main­tain speed and op­er­ate for a lim­ited time with­out a driver do­ing the steer­ing with cam­eras and other sen­sors. While more de­tails will emerge, pre­lim­i­nary find­ings state that a white semi trac­tor-trailer turned in front of the car and the cam­eras and sen­sors on the Tesla couldn’t dis­tin­guish be­tween the white trailer and the bright Florida sky. The car drove on and into the trailer – not know­ing it was there at all!


There is a se­cond story here. How un­tested tech­nol­ogy that isn’t ready for prime time can some­times be­come a se­ri­ous road block for fu­ture in­no­va­tion. What will be the fall­out of this fa­tal­ity. New rules, strin­gent laws, ban­ning of auto-pi­lot mode in all cars for a while, li­cences and reg­u­la­tions? And it’s not as if the tech­nol­ogy re­ally failed. If the trailer in front of the car also had an auto-pi­lot mode and could sense all the other cars on that high­way, it would have been aware of the car be­hind it and speeded up or turned away. This tragedy could have been averted.


There is no go­ing away from the fact that we will all be in an auto-pi­lot self-driven car in the fu­ture. It’s a pre­des­tined path for the au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try and for us hu­mans. Ev­ery sin­gle car and tech com­pany in the world is work­ing to­wards it, plus it’s ac­tu­ally good for us, the en­vi­ron­ment and the world we live in. From park­ing woes, traffic jams, pol­lu­tion, bet­ter trans­porta­tion as well as safety on the roads – all of them get solved with the per­fect self-driv­ing cars ecosys­tem. But this one crash has opened up a can of worms and the whole self-driv­ing car in­dus­try may have a five-year set­back. It also brings back the clas­sic ques­tion that still doesn’t have a per­fect an­swer. Maybe you can give it a shot.


You’re sit­ting in a self-driven com­pletely au­to­mated car. Two chil­dren aged 6 and 7 sud­denly cross the road right in front of the car and a crash is im­mi­nent in the next se­cond. Your au­to­mated car has to take a de­ci­sion based on pro­gram­ming it has been fed for a sit­u­a­tion like this. Should it drive you into cer­tain death by crash­ing the car into a wall on the right or should it save you and mow down the two chil­dren? Think about it and let me know what the right an­swer is. It is ques­tions like these that need to be an­swered be­fore we all take our hands off the steer­ing wheel for­ever.

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