THE BIG IDEA: A Setback for Tesla Motors’ Technology Puts Autonomous Cars in Question

San Francisco, CA - April 2014: Tesla Motors model S sedan electric car on country road, Tesla's new Gigafactory would help Tesla increase its monthly production volume to 20,000 cars per month.

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demolition_man_1993.jpgDo you remember the 1993 film Demolition Man? The action-adventure movie was set in a distant future where John Spartan, a law enforcement officer awakened from a “deep freeze” sleep, finds himself face-to-face with advancements hard to fathom. Voice-activated home systems. Television and radio channels that run only vintage commercials. Self-driving cars. At some points in the movie, this was all too much for Spartan to handle.

Now here’s the scary thing. Some of these things have already come to fruition. Thanks to Amazon and Alexi, we have voice-activated home comforts. Thanks to YouTube, we can find entire channels dedicated to advertisements of the past. With the trend of science fiction becoming science fact, it’s only a matter of time until we get that self-driving car, right?   

Well, about that…

It is no secret that Tesla has nearly perfected the self-driving car. Introduced in the Tesla S, the “Driver Assist” is amazing to watch, and terrifying to experience. The reflex part of your brain, when Driver Assist takes over, is screaming at you “Put your hands back on the wheel!” while the rational part of your brain is reassuring you “Elon Musk is your co-pilot.”  This innovation is definitely a ground-breaker in the quest for the autonomous car, but recently Tesla Motors faced its first case that could prove a setback. Tesla S’ Driver Assist failed to register the side of a white tractor-trailer truck against a pale sky. That may sound a bit odd, but it is that contrast between white lane markings against black pavement that assist the onboard systems that work into Driver Assist features. Sadly, this failure resulted in the death of the driver.

Before sole blame can be laid on Tesla Motors’ shoulders, there is something worth mentioning about this auto fatality: The driver was watching a DVD. Yes, you read that right. The driver was in the driver’s seat, watching a movie, and didn’t notice the white trailer truck cross over into his lane. The investigation deduced as the on-board cameras were focused on the white of the trailer truck and an overcast sky, the autonomous feature did not pick up any changes in traffic and the Telsa slammed straight into the side of the truck.

Tragic as the outcome, it’s a little hard to get beyond the fact that the driver was watching a movie.

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If both car and truck had been truly autonomous, the vehicles would have been communicating to one other using a “traffic control” style system, but this is not an autonomous system we are talking about here. Tesla, along with Elon Musk rather candidly on Twitter, has stated that the Tesla S is not autonomous, nor is the Driver Assist fool-proof. The driver can rely on it to a point, but much like the autopilot feature of a passenger jet, the driver must remain aware and alert. This situation, however, does stop to give critical viewpoints pause: is the real problem the technology behind autonomous cars, or that people have already shown too much trust in a technology still in beta?

While the Driver Assist is amazing, it should be noted that it is not the car driving for you. The Tesla can drive stretches for you, but it will not know how to get to your destination, will not know which exit to take, and will fail to take detours for you. There is also a dramatic difference between Google’s approach to autonomous automobiles and Tesla’s. Google believes you can’t trust the driver at all, and that semi-autonomous cars are the root cause of accidents like the one this Tesla S encountered. This is why Google is attempting to perfect the Level 5 car. Tesla is a level 3 car—it’s “augmented autonomous” or as described by the Tesla representatives, “a very advanced version of cruise control.” As Level 5 is completely autonomous, Google is intending to remove the steering wheel and pedals. There is no pretense as to who is driving, so in that case passengers are encouraged to entertain themselves accordingly. Perhaps this aggressive approach to Level 5 could cement for Google a dominate position in the self-driving car movement, but if the software and technology truly is unreliable at a Level 3 Driver Assist model, it may be a few more years until we reach the society depicted in Demolition Man.

Which is a good thing. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember who won the Fast Food Wars. I don’t think I’m quite ready for a “Live Mas” society.

 

 

shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.

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