Leave Tesla alone, autonomous cars can’t come soon enough

Here in Philly, I could set my clock by daily rush hour accidents once school starts. I’ve joked that since most school kids aren’t old enough to drive, teachers must be terrible drivers. Either that or they don’t drive all summer and have to learn all over again. In reality, roads are just more crowded. Many more people are on the roads during the 7am and 4pm hours that I commute. In addition, there are a new set of stressors and distractions for parents that come with the kids going back to school. All of this is a recipe for disaster.

Yesterday was the first day of school for those in Philadelphia public schools and as expected, I encountered an accident on my way home. The car, a Nissan, was turned the wrong way and had an exceptionally mangled front end. I sincerely hope whoever was driving the car survived, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t.

What caused the accident? Driving a car is a series of mundane tasks and subconscious mental processes. Did the driver make an honest mistake and misjudge something? Or was he distracted by thoughts of school supplies or a little red number showing a notification on any one of the many communication apps on his smart phone? Maybe he had nothing to do with it. Maybe another driver made an egregious error and the Nissan did all it could to avoid it, but ended up losing control. Maybe he and another driver both processed routine thoughts to make driving decisions such as seeing that there was a space in the middle lane and deciding to merge into it.

Whatever the case, I’m fairly certain that being in a Tesla while using Autopilot driver’s assistance features, the Nissan driver would be a very different situation right now. The Tesla would have attempted some maneuver to mitigate the crash as best as it could. Not knowing the situation, I certainly can’t claim the accident would not have happened in a Tesla. What I can claim is that once full autonomy comes to cars, the roads will be measurably safer. They have to be, or the technology will be regulated out of existence.

“once full autonomy comes to cars, the roads will be measurably safer”

A few miles later and more minutes than it should have taken, I was off the highway. I came to a 4-way stop sign, which are extremely common where I live. The problem with 4-way stop signs is that you process them without even thinking. Stop, wait a few seconds, move. I’ve been guilty a few times of going too early and cutting off the person who deserved to cross the intersection ahead of me. I’ve been the one cut off plenty too. So many times with stop signs you are just stopping for an appropriate interval of time rather than actually waiting for someone. (Chances are, that someone has already gone quickly, if there is someone on the cross street at all.) Again, this all happens so many times per drive that it has become an almost subconscious process. Your foot holds the brake pedal. Your foot moves to the go pedal.

Oh Sh#! Moment

What happened next did so in a flash, and left my hands shaking. I came to a stop and stayed that way for some appropriate length of time. In an imperceptibly short amount of time, my brain decided the pickup truck waiting to cross my path wasn’t going and I should go. There was a woman standing on the corner with a dog. I’m pretty sure my brain processed that the pickup truck driver was talking to her. He didn’t wave me on, but something made me go.

What should have happened next is that the pickup truck driver should have honked at me and cursed me out. Maybe even held up a 1-finger salute. That is not what happened. What happened is that after I had already started going, he did too. For another imperceptibly short amount of time, my brain thought ‘crap, I guess just cut this guy off.’ Then, he didn’t stop. After his nearly subconscious process of moving his foot from brake to go pedal, he should have seen me in his path and stopped. I can only assume he was not looking ahead. He was getting closer and I quickly calculated that since I was in a Tesla and he in a truck, the best course of action was to stomp on the go pedal. That’s what I did. I accelerated faster than I should have in a residential area, but I’d certainly rather go from 10 to 30 mph too quickly than be in an accident. I heard tires screeching, then the word “asshole” being yelled.

What just happened? Who was at fault? Me, partially, because I took his turn. Him, mostly, because regardless of what another person does, if you are stopped then begin moving and t-bone that someone, you’re at fault. He should have been looking. He should have stopped. He would have had plenty of time to stop considering he was starting from a complete stop. I had been paying attention. He hadn’t. There was no reason for this situation to result in tire screeching. There was definitely no reason for it to result in a collision.

Computers vs. the Human Brain

The point is, human brains are amazing. They process unlimited amounts of information in record time. They are efficient. Too efficient even. They take shortcuts to arrive at a thought. (Lights are off at CVS and it’s midnight, it must be closed. No need to go to the door and check the sign to see closing time.) All of these shortcuts help us to drive but can also harm us. We get too complacent, too quick to take action without intentional thought. Have you ever been driving and realized you don’t really recall the last few miles? Probably. Your brain and hands and feet drove you, without incident, to that point. To add to this, our brains are thinking about other things. We change the radio station, adjust our air conditioning, mentally plan dinner and chores, wonder how our spouse’s day went. Autonomous cars will have one job. That job will be to drive safely. I picture a world where cars communicate too, so the question of whose turn it is at a 4-way stop sign should be an easy one. An autonomous car won’t stop to talk to the lady on the corner with the dog. An autonomous car won’t look away from the road ahead. An autonomous car may have camera failure, but it would know it was unable to see and act accordingly.

If anyone out there still thinks Tesla’s Autopilot is a gimmick, hear this: it is a group of driver’s assistance features that make us leaps closer to truly autonomous driving. In my opinion – and presumably that of the poor Nissan driver – it can’t come soon enough.

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