Tesla Auto: Perfect, Hands-Free Safety 'Impossible'

John Lister's picture

Elon Musk, the man behind the Tesla electric cars, says that the "Autopilot" and other self-driving systems will never be perfectly safe. Instead, he insists that safety for such features is improving, and the latest changes would have prevented a recent death.

In the case of Tesla models, the autopilot cars are not fully autonomous in the same way as self-driving cars, such as Google's test vehicles. Instead, the technology is pitched somewhere between such cars and the far more common 'cruise control' feature.

The Autopilot feature on the Tesla Model S combines a windshield camera, a radar beam, and acoustic sensors. Combined, these devices detect both fixed indicators such as road signs and markings, and moving objects such as other vehicles. As well as automatic parking, the technology allows hands-free driving on "limited-access roads," which are highways that have few (if any) intersections, don't allow cyclists, and have barriers between lanes that run in opposite directions.

Autopilot Car Driver Killed In Crash With Truck

The technology made headlines in May this year when a Tesla S driver died following a crash with a truck that took place while he was using Autopilot.

Musk says an update to the technology will improve safety in a couple of ways. One is to improve the radar and use this as the primary method of detecting other vehicles. According to Musk, this avoids the problem of turning up the sensitivity on cameras, then risk false positives triggered by overhead signs (for example).

The second change is to boost the warning system designed to stop drivers being too reliant on the technology. They'll now get a warning to take back control of the wheel if their hands are off for more than one minute while the car is travelling at more than 45 miles per hour. (Source: newsweek.com)

Hands-Free Drivers Get Speed Warning

The warning will include audible alerts and a flashing dashboard light. If the driver ignores three such warnings in a one-hour period, the Autopilot will shut down and the car return to normal driving mode. The driver won't be able to switch Autopilot back on until the car is parked.

Despite the improvements, Musk warns safety can never be guaranteed. He said "Perfect safety is really an impossible goal. It's about improving the probability of safety. There won't ever be zero fatalities, [and] there won't ever be zero injuries." (Source: fortune.com)

What's Your Opinion?

Do you agree with Musk's warning? Should self-driving technology be allowed if the manufacturers can't guarantee perfect safety? Or is this unrealistic given there are plenty of crashes with cars fully controlled by drivers?

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clay_3833's picture

It's all relative. It comes as no surprised that a self-driving system will never be absolutely perfect. However it appears likely that they can become hugely better than human operated vehicles that currently kill over 100 Americans every day, and some 3,000 every day around the world.

dan400man's picture

"Musk's *warning*?"??? This is just plain common sense.

A system with "perfect safety" probably needs a closed environment with all vehicles in it communicating with each other at all times and whose operating systems can't be overridden (hacked).

So, yeah, like never. Well, at least not in my lifetime.

Does that mean we disregard all self-driving, auto-pilot technology? No. Enforce driver cognition by watching the driver's eyes (technology already available); do that, and I think that would resolve a LOT of issues. If we insist on "perfect safety" to advance a technology, we might as well never get out of bed. How about if we, instead, make the goal to *improve* safety?

matt_2058's picture

In the rush to market, the consumer is given an unproven product. The system needs more work if it can't work with the current variables on our roads like cyclists, whether it's bicyclists or motorcyclists.

While I believe some machines can be programmed to make better decisions than alot of people out there, I don't think self-driving cars are there yet as a whole package.