It’s been a bad couple weeks for Tesla. Not only did it suffer the first fatal crash of an Autopiloted vehicle, but the NHTSA is investigating the crash, and the SEC is reportedly looking into breaches of securities law surrounding the same event.
None of this is good for Tesla, or the much-heralded Autopilot cruise control software. But should Tesla disable the feature? Of course not.
The Wall Street Journal just ran a story titled “Tesla Has No Plans to Disable Autopilot Feature in Its Cars,” quoting Elon Musk as saying the company will not be disabling Autopilot.
This should not come as a surprise to anyone. One Autopiloted Tesla has been involved in a fatal crash in 130 million miles on the road, making it much safer than human-piloted cars, at least in this small sample. Disabling Autopilot because one driver crashed would be like limiting all cars to 80mph because some reckless people speed.
But Musk is admitting Tesla has a problem — with the way Autopilot is branded. At heart, Autopilot is just a really good cruise control, capable of reading some road signs, steering, emergency braking, and following the car in front. Under optimal conditions, this means that hands-free cruising will work on some sections of highway, but it’s worlds apart from a proper self-driving car.
Unfortunately, everything Tesla has done to market Autopilot — starting with the name — makes it seem more intelligent than it really is. That’s why we have dumb videos of people sleeping or backseat driving in Autopiloted cars. Yes, the software is technically in “Beta,” and Tesla has occasional reminders to keep your hands on the wheel. But it’s not enough, because people are awful, and Tesla has essentially been saying that you can take your hands off the wheel and have a nap — you just shouldn’t.
In his WSJ interview, Musk said that the company is planning an “explanatory blog post that highlights how Autopilot works as a safety system and what drivers are expected to do after they activate it.” That sounds an awful lot like the instructions Autopilot should have shipped with. It’s a shame that it took one life (and a thousand bad YouTube pranks) to make it happen.