Despite a major setback, self-driving car tech must advance

News from last week should not cause a roadblock with self-driving cars. If anything, the news should spur us on even further.

Tesla model S
Credit: Paul Sableman/Flickr

There were two troubling reports from the automotive field last week. Both are sobering and serve as good reminders, and they by no means cancel each other out.

One piece of news was related to the Tesla Model S driver who died in a tragic accident. If you believe the reports so far, he was watching a Harry Potter movie when his Model S sedan crashed into a tractor-trailer with Autopilot engaged. Tesla issued a explanation of sorts, and many of the reports openly wondered if this would be a major setback for autonomous driving.

A day later, the NHTSA issued an unrelated but timely report on driver deaths. Fatalities due to traffic accidents in the U.S. went up by 7% -- from 32,675 in 2014 to 35,200 in 2015. That’s a sobering statistic because it means drivers are not benefiting from tech innovations such as automated braking and adaptive cruise control (which was originally designed as a life-saving measure even though it seems like a robot is driving your car) as much as expected. It could mean more drivers are also texting as they drive, or that they are overconfident about the safety features on board.

I have another theory: We do not have enough safety tech.

Let me explain with a personal example. A few years ago I was involved in an incident that could have turned out differently. I was driving with a family member in an Audi A8 I was testing in winter. I came up over a hill as a school bus was driving down the middle of the road. I quickly maneuvered the car to the side, and the traction control kicked in. Instead of fish-tailing into the bus, the car grabbed the loose snow and moved over to the side as though a computer had taken over for me.

It had taken over for me. Modern traction control looks for wheel spin and compensates automatically in a fraction of a second, and it's what we might have called robotic a few decades ago. You don’t need to know anything about it. You don’t have to be a good driver. In a worse-case scenario, it operates behind the scenes and can save your life.

I agree there’s an issue with automated driving. Yet, the issue is not that we are relying on it too much or that it is not working properly. Accidents will happen, that's the grim fact of life. The issue is that there are not enough automations in modern cars. The issue is that the innovations like vehicle-to-infrastructure communication and vehicle-to-vehicle communication are not available yet. It’s not that they are to blame for accidents, but that they have not become prevalent enough.

The technology must advance. There is no question that more of these automations in every car on the road and on the road itself will save lives. We need to be even more aggressive in adopting them, advancing them, and revising them as a way to save lives. We need more Google and Tesla, not less. If anything, there is a serious wake-up call that we need to take a holistic view of autonomous driving, that the highway could one day become a safer place thanks to sensors that look around the car constantly and can brake and swerve for you. They need to improve, not stall out.

There is still much to learn, and there will be many setbacks along the way, but that shouldn't discourage anyone from the ultimate goal of making sure technology is in place on more cars...and not roadblocked.

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