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Tesla Autopilot will have a tough job covering all real-world anomalies

Having an always-on HD dashcam installed in the Tesla generally means that 99% of the footage captured is of your everyday run-of-the-mill commute, but it’s that out of the ordinary 1% that really makes things exciting.

On the way to a family luncheon held at a local sushi buffet we encountered a little more excitement than usual. Not because I’m convinced that Route 90 in Massachusetts is a magnet for idiots who like to drive while texting with their phones, express themselves using crazy bumper stickers, and do terrible things to their vehicles, but because among the mix of crazies and commuters, we also managed to encounter a flying hubcap.

The scenario

We were cruising along in our pre-Autopilot Model S when the hubcap of the van in front of us popped off. The hubcap would appear to roll to my left, but only before a steel band separated projecting itself left and up as the hubcap veered right. Surrounded by cars on either side of me, I was faced with the split-second decision  to choose between which one to hit.

Hubcap and wheelband

Flying wheel bands and hubcaps

The band looked a lot smaller, appeared lighter and was at a height where it would hit the glass rather than my paint so I decided to take that on. The band struck my windshield and went spinning off. The hubcap continued to veer to my right and rolled off the road. As far as I can tell neither the hubcap or band hit another vehicle.

My human reaction was to move slightly to my left lane after thinking about which would be the lesser of two evils while keeping safety in mind. Braking hard or swerving to either side could have resulted in a lot more negative consequences. While it’s instinct to dodge flying trash, debris and even animals, the unfortunate reality of it all is that striking the obstacles is sometimes the best decision.

I suppose, you never know what’s best until you’re faced with these rarities.

Autopilot and flying objects

This experience got me thinking about Tesla’s Autopilot and whether their team will incorporate an ethical component to the Autopilot algorithm. Navigating roads, dodging cars and avoiding the side of white trucks cast against a brightly lit sky is one big challenge Tesla continues to try and figure out. To make things even more difficult, how will autonomous vehicles adjust to airborne obstacles? The car can react a a lot faster than I can and technically has more opportunity to potentially make the wrong decision. One can argue that the additional time also provides the vehicle more opportunity to fully analyze the situation and make the right decision if programmed correctly.

With today’s sensors the car probably wouldn’t see the objects I encountered, but in the future it may very well be able to do so. Full autopilot that is as good as an experienced driver is a massive undertaking and Tesla knowingly still has a long way to go. The flying hubcap experience was a good first-hand reminder of why you should keep your hands on the wheel at all times – Autopilot or not.

Summary

In the end I was fortunate — I got some rubber on my glass that I could remove with baking soda, and I was left with a couple of scratches on the windshield near my line of sight. I’ll have to check with a glass expert to see if there are any safety issues with the depth of those scratches — tempered glass becomes a lot less structurally sound after the outside layer is compromised. You normally want every significant windshield impact repaired but I’m hoping not to be writing about the woes of a windshield replacement for the Tesla Model S anytime soon.

My dashcam caught the whole thing in action. Should I ever need proof of what happened for insurance, it’s all there including the van’s license plate, proof that the hubcap came from that van etc. The dashcam provides that extra level of comfort and the ability to go back and review your own reactions in situations like this so that, like Autopilot, you’re learning from each and every experience.

The brief video is below:

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