Self-Driving Cars, Part 0.5

This past week Tesla unveiled the “D” model, which has a lot of cool features — but as per the post title, I want to talk about its advances towards our future self-driving reality.

Check out the demo here (particularly, the second half of the video):

On the one hand: It’s pretty incredible to actually see these sorts of features in real life as opposed to just in fantastic theoretical prose about the future. It’s definitely a little intimidating — the reviewer for TheVerge actually titles his piece “My Lap of Terror.”

I’m terrified, but for entirely different reasons.

As should be clear at this point from my recent update history, I’m rather zealously looking forward to the day when cars are driving themselves around the road. It’s worth noting that assisted driving features have been publicly available in cars since around 2003, when Toyota began selling a car which could parallel park itself. I have the same level of confidence in car technology’s ability to safely and effectively navigate both Toyota’s parking and Tesla’s lane changing and speed limits.

What I have very little faith in is people.

For example: How long do you think it’s going to take for some lunatic to post a video to YouTube of himself¬†turning on Assisted Driving and then just completely abandoning the drivers seat?[ref]We already had the Ghostride fad circa 2006.[/ref]

You think it’ll take a few weeks? A few days?

What if I told you… someone actually already did exactly this over two months ago?

Scarier than that, because I think it’d be far more commonplace: Just simple lapses in human judgment. I think assisted driving leads us to being lazier drivers. We already have a hard enough time checking our blindspots when we switch lanes.

Say you’re a little groggy and happen to be taking your wife’s car to work instead of your Tesla one morning. Or say you get comfortable enough with assisted driving that you justify it as a good time to take out your phone and sneak in a few text messages from behind the wheel. All it takes is one second.

I don’t want to start sounding too much like your nagging, paranoid parents here. But no question about it: Lazy driving and distracted driving lead to accidents.[ref]Tangentially: It’s worth reading up on the European cities which made their streets safer by removing every single form of traffic signal,¬†on the premise that without all of the crutches of traffic lights, stop signs, and so on, drivers would intuitively be relegated to be hyper-aware of their own safety, so they’re more careful. Accidents have gone down precipitously.[/ref]

We’re in sort of a treacherous valley right now — at the far end of the horizon, the utopian fully-autonomous vehicle. One view of the world was that we might just make one big gigantic leap across — say, Google just deploys its self-driving car and we all hope it clicks. What it looks like, though, is that we’ll be crossing the valley baby step by baby step — inching closer to the future and deploying the self-driving car on a feature-by-feature basis over several years. There’ll be growing pains either way; I can only hope that we make it across quickly.

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