The auto industry is moving full throttle towards a time when cars drive themselves and I’m excited and optimistic. I’m personally excited because as I age, I realize there may be a time when I can no longer drive myself. And I’m optimistic that the software and hardware that operate self-driving cars will do so more safely than we humans and put a huge dent in the car accident death toll, which took 40,200 American lives last year.
Robotic cars don’t drink or take drugs, they don’t get tired and they don’t get road rage. They also have much better vision than we do and faster response times. I learned a bit about the ability for a car to see and react quickly when I test drove a Tesla Model S with Autopilot.
After pulling onto Highway 280 in Palo Alto, I set the cruise control to 65 miles per hour and turned on Autopilot. The car immediately started steering itself and adjusting its speed based on traffic conditions. Then I decided to change lanes and flipped the turn indicator. But, instead of just blinking a light, the Tesla automatically moved to the next lane.
What shocked me about the process was how fast the car responded. When I change lanes in a conventional car, I take a few seconds to check the rear-view mirror and glance over my shoulder to make sure it’s safe, but the Tesla made the move almost instantaneously. That’s because its cameras, sensors and computers were already aware of traffic conditions all around the car. I don’t have eyes on the back of my head but the car has eights cameras to provide 360 degree vision up to 250 meters around the entire car. There are also 12 ultrasonic sensors as well as forward-facing radar “that is able to see through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead.”
Tesla has announced that all of the cars it’s now building, including its upcoming Model 3 that will start at about $35,000, have the necessary hardware to be fully autonomous. Still, they won’t be fully self-driving anytime soon. Tesla and other automakers have plenty of development and testing to do before government regulators will allow them to release the software to turn on the fully self-driving features.
Until we fully transition from driver assistance technologies to complete autonomy, we need to work on the component of the the human driver, whose software will never be perfected. This became evident on June 20 when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its report on the 2016 Tesla Model S accident that claimed the life of its driver.
The report, based on data provided by Tesla, said that the driver, who was using Tesla’s Autopilot at the time, had his hands on the wheel for only 25 seconds during the 37-minute period of the trip when the system instructed him that he needed to retain control of the vehicle. Tesla has since updated its software to not just warn drivers to take control, but to disable Autopilot if they fail to heed the warning. The driver reportedly failed to apply the brakes but, instead, set the cruise control to 74 miles per hour (nine MPH above the speed limit) less than two minutes before the crash.
I don’t own a Tesla but, in a quest to own a safer car, late last year I sold my 2010 Prius and bought a 2016 model with “Toyota Safety Sense” (TSS). I paid extra for that feature but, to its credit, Toyota now includes it or a similar feature as standard equipment in its 2017 models. Most car makes offer similar safety features.
Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot, TSS doesn’t let you take your hands off the wheel, but it does have lane departure alert to issue a visible and audible signal if you start to drift into the next lane. If you fail to take action, it will automatically nudge you back into your lane, though, from my tests, it’s not going to keep you in your lane. And while the car won’t change lanes automatically, it does have a very useful blind spot monitor that causes a signal to appear in your side mirror if there is a car in or near your blind spot. It also has a pre-collision system that warns you of a likely collision with the car in front of you and – if you fail to act – automatically applies the brakes if a collision is imminent.
Like a lot of new cars, my Prius also has dynamic radar cruise control which, like traditional cruise control, maintains your speed on the highway but also applies the brakes if it sees the car in front of you slow down or stop. It’s a wonderful feature that I use a lot, but – as I discovered recently – it’s not perfect. It almost always does slow me down if the car ahead of me slows down, but there have been a couple of times when it failed to apply the brakes, which is why it’s essential for the driver to remain vigilant and ready to act. The owner’s manual warns, “there is a limit to the degree of recognition accuracy and control performance that this system can provide, do not overly rely on this system. The driver is always responsible for paying attention to the vehicle’s surroundings and driving safely.”
Even when cars are fully automated, they will never be 100 percent safe. There will be hardware failures, software glitches and lapses that will cause accidents and even deaths. But I’m convinced that they will be a lot safer than today’s cars. In the meantime, to quote from the 1959 song, “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Backseat,” you must still “Keep your mind on your drivin’, keep your hands on the wheel, keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead.” Someday, you may be able to “have fun sittin in the seat, huggin and a kissin with Fred,” or someone else of your choosing.
Published at Wed, 21 Jun 2017 17:48:42 +0000