Tesla CEO: Crit­i­cism of self-driv­ing cars can kill peo­ple

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - NATION+WORLD - By Dee-Ann Durbin And Tom Kr­isher

Self-driv­ing cars hold the prom­ise of sav­ing thou­sands of lives each year on U.S. roads. But does point­ing out flaws with the tech­nol­ogy ef­fec­tively put peo­ple in dan­ger?

That claim was put forth Wed­nes­day by Tesla Mo­tors CEO Elon Musk, who crit­i­cized the me­dia for harp­ing on the rel­a­tively few crashes in­volv­ing Tesla’s semi-au­ton­o­mous driv­ing sys­tem called Au­topi­lot, while say­ing lit­tle about the about the 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple who die world­wide each year in hu­man-driven ve­hi­cles.

“If, in writ­ing some ar­ti­cle that’s neg­a­tive, you ef­fec­tively dis­suade peo­ple from us­ing au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, you’re killing peo­ple,” said Musk, who ex­pects his self­driv­ing tech­nol­ogy to be at least twice as safe as cars driven by hu­mans.

The com­ments came as Musk an­nounced that all new Tesla ve­hi­cles — in­clud­ing the lower-cost Model 3 — will have the hard­ware needed to drive them­selves. The talk is bold but ex­perts say it’s pre­ma­ture un­til self­driv­ing cars prove they’re bet­ter driv­ers than hu­mans un­der any cir­cum­stances. “Over time, after the tech­nol­ogy has es­tab­lished it­self, one would ex­pect there would be a de­crease in fa­tal­i­ties,” says Raj Ra­jku­mar, a com­puter en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity who leads its au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle re­search. “But this is too pre­ma­ture to make this claim. Tesla’s tech­nol­ogy is known to be im­per­fect.”

In May, an Ohio man us­ing Au­topi­lot died when his Tesla Model S failed to spot a trac­tor-trailer cross­ing a di­vided high­way. Nei­ther the car nor the driver braked, and the Model S crashed into the side of the trailer. Fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors are look­ing into Au­topi­lot’s role in the crash.

There is ev­i­dence, how­ever, that one day Musk could be proven to be right. While cur­rently there is lit­tle data show­ing that fully au­ton­o­mous cars would re­duce deaths, there are stud­ies that show com­puter con­trols can cut fa­tal­i­ties. The In­surance In­sti­tute for High­way Safety said it de­ter­mined from 2016 po­lice data that for­ward col­li­sion warn­ing alone re­duced front-into-rear crashes by 27 per­cent. Au­to­matic brak­ing cut the rear crashes in half and re­duced in­juries by al­most 60 per­cent.

Tesla’s Au­topi­lot, in­tro­duced last year, can main­tain a set speed and dis­tance and keep the car in its lane. But the tech­nol­ogy works mainly on high­ways and must be mon­i­tored by the driver. Au­topi­lot will turn it­self off if driv­ers have their hands off the wheel for too long.

Musk says Au­topi­lot has al­ready shown it­self to be safer than hu­mans. He tweeted ear­lier this month that Tesla ve­hi­cles have been driven 222 mil­lion miles in Au­topi­lot mode, with one con­firmed driver death. By com­par­i­son, the U.S. fa­tal­ity rate in 2014 was 2.16 deaths per 200 mil­lion miles trav­eled, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment data.

The new au­ton­o­mous sys­tem has been in test­ing for more than a year, and Musk said Wed­nes­day it could cut world­wide deaths in half if all cars used it.

Ra­jku­mar was skep­ti­cal and called the Tesla an­nounce­ment “mar­ket­ing hype.” He said peo­ple should be skep­ti­cal of Tesla’s claims be­cause of the Florida crash. Self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy “still needs to prove it­self,” he said, adding that it has trou­ble op­er­at­ing in dense ur­ban traf­fic and in­clement weather.

Con­sumer Re­ports mag­a­zine also is con­cerned about semi-au­ton­o­mous sys­tems such as those that al­low a car to steer it­self. The mag­a­zine be­lieves au­tomak­ers like Tesla “should take stronger steps to en­sure that ve­hi­cles with th­ese sys­tems are de­signed, de­ployed, and mar­keted safely,” it said in a state­ment.

One crit­i­cism of Au­topi­lot is that the sys­tem gives driv­ers a false sense of se­cu­rity, caus­ing them to be dis­tracted and un­pre­pared to take con­trol in an emer­gency. The Ger­man govern­ment has told Tesla to stop us­ing the Au­topi­lot name be­cause it im­plies that cars can drive them­selves.

Musk dis­agrees, say­ing the term has been used in avi­a­tion to de­scribe a sys­tem that as­sists pi­lots.

The new Tesla ve­hi­cles will use Tesla-de­vel­oped soft­ware and have more sen­sors. They’ll have eight cam­eras — com­pared to one in pre­vi­ous mod­els — as well as ad­vanced sonar and greater com­put­ing ca­pac­ity. Tesla says the sys­tem is fully au­ton­o­mous and can work on city streets as well as high­ways. Buy­ers can pay $3,000 for Au­topi­lot or $8,000 for the full self-driv­ing sys­tem.

Tesla own­ers, though, won’t be able to give up con­trol of their cars just yet. The com­pany will grad­u­ally roll out au­ton­o­mous ca­pa­bil­ity in soft­ware up­dates ev­ery few months, once there’s enough data to prove it’s safe, Musk said. The up­dates also would have to meet safety reg­u­la­tions in the U.S. and else­where.


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