Fear. That’s what I felt. Deep, profound fear. Not the sort of heart in your throat, life flashing before your eyes fear; but rather, the sort of profound, cognizant, intellectual fear that starts deep within the logic center of your brain, gradually coursing its way through the rest of your body. The sort of fear that speaks through your inner voice with concerned authority, like a father politely, respectfully, yet sternly reprimanding his seven year old child.
I just tried Telsa’s Autopilot and came away profoundly, deeply fearful. Not fearful that Teslas can now (mostly) drive themselves, but rather because other cars cannot.
Last week we took an informed look at the automotive world in 2020 — now just four short years away, and in so doing, imagined an even further point in the future, namely, the turn of the 22nd century: not to pretend that we can forecast what life will be like some 85 years from now, but rather to imagine what children from that era will think when they see old movies about life today.
Parallels were drawn to our reactions today whenever we see movies from the 20th century: our favorite movie characters darting about dangerous mountain roads and bustling city streets without seat belts; cars that amounted to little more than coffins on wheels, utterly devoid of proper crash zones or safety glass, not to mention seat belts; and, obviously, no electronic protection systems like anti-lock brakes, traction control, or airbags.
Even as recently as the 1980s, cars’ handling characteristics were only slightly more composed than that of a drunk rhinoceros.
And those represent just the frightening lack of modern safety equipment, never mind the woefully inept fundamental designs of the cars themselves, with their helplessly underpowered brake systems; tires more appropriate for a bicycle; and suspension systems that didn’t seem to understand the concept of shock absorbers. Indeed, even as recently as the 1980s, cars’ handling characteristics were only slightly more composed than that of a drunk rhinoceros.
For a sense of just what I’m on about, take a look at the legendary Steve McQueen film Bullitt, from 1968, just one year before America’s moon landing; and if you haven’t yet, here’s a clip of the first part of the chase to whet your appetite.
The key take-away here — besides that nobody is wearing seat belts, San Francisco’s hills are fun and bouncy, and VW Beetles tend to get in your way — is how remarkably, hopelessly unstable cars of just 40 to 50 years ago were; never mind cars of the first half of the 20th century.
The point is, even today’s least expensive sub-compact cars handle better, because modern science and engineering.
The magic of Autopilot completely overshadowed the fact that I just accelerated a vehicle with such violent force that I actually hurt my face.
Test driving a new Tesla Model S P90 (with Ludicrous mode, because why not) with Autopilot was a grim, sobering wake-up call, if only because the magic of Autopilot completely overshadowed the fact that I just accelerated a vehicle with such violent force (a sustained 1.1g to 50 miles per hour) that I hit 60 miles per hour in about 2.7 seconds and actually hurt my face.
I will forever remember the day I first drove a self-driving car; or more correctly, the day a self-driving car first drove me.
Think about that for a second: here I am, a hopelessly, impossibly fanatical petrolhead / gear head / automotive engineering car geek, and yet the Bugatti Veryon-rivaling acceleration of the Ludicrous Mode-endowed Model S that I just drove was a relatively insignificant thing in the face of Autopilot. Indeed, I will forever remember the day I first drove a self-driving car; or more correctly, the day a self-driving car first drove me.
Let’s get one thing straight: Autopilot is not a fully autonomous technology. (Yet.) For example, you cannot get in the car, enter a destination in the GPS, engage Autopilot, and take a nap.
I like to describe Teslas as “Autopilot-enabled, driver-managed” cars, as opposed to, say, “autonomous” or “self-driving” cars.
No. As we’ve discussed countless times (most notably here and here), Tesla has so-named its Autopilot system as to suggest the eponymous systems of commercial aviation that still require full and competent management by the pilots. This is why I like to describe Teslas as “Autopilot-enabled, driver-managed” cars, as opposed to, say, “autonomous” or “self-driving” cars.
What Autopilot does do is offer a profound peace of mind: not so much because you enjoy what it does for you — you do — but because you start to realize, very quickly, just how much you wish everybody else had Autopilot on their cars too. And before long, that wish had evolved into something much stronger still: I was furious that other cars didn’t have such technology yet.
But of course, this is bleeding edge tech: naturally, it needs time to evolve, and will require another five to ten years before it is mandated (even if it will start to become quite commonplace, and indeed, fully autonomous, around 2020).
My point is, after my first experience with Autopilot, I cannot express emphatically enough that this technology needs to evolve and be mandated as fast as humanly and legally possible: we cannot keep losing 3,000 lives per month in the US alone — an entire 9/11 tragedy every month — due to automobile accidents.
But enough with my preaching, lecturing, and admonishing. Obviously, you want to know how Autopilot functioned, to which I can only respond “awesomely, frustratingly well.” I say “frustratingly” because I want this now, and I want everyone else to have it now, and because it isn’t perfect yet.
The first moment I pulled back twice on the still-Mercedes-sourced cruise control lever to engage Autopilot will forever be etched in my memory.
The first moment I pulled back twice on the still-Mercedes-sourced cruise control lever to engage Autopilot will forever be etched in my memory like the first time I engaged takeoff power and lifted off the runway in a Cessna 150; the first time I breathed 10 meters under the ocean with scuba gear; and, I’m sure, the first time I’ll (one day) jump out of an airplane strapped to some guy with a parachute on his back.
Slowly, delicately removing my hands from the steering wheel, and sidestepping my foot from the gas pedal was a mind-numbing, zen-like sense of peace and tranquility, even if it was a bit unnerving at first. Granted, I’ve read numerous other first impressions of Autopilot, and if I’m honest, I think I was one of the more immediately trusting and comfortable people during my first experience with its black magic. Call it trust — misplaced or otherwise — in the brilliance of the technology that empowers it, coupled with a genuine, lusting desire for the technology to mature and, yes, be everywhere, in all cars, at all times.
And that’s precisely what was so special about Autopilot: even though it wasn’t (quite) flawless — while it always detected cars in my blindspot and admirably refused to engage an automated lane change, it did drop the ball once, failing to detect one car, and triggered an explosive cacophony of well-deserved honking from the SUV to my left — it nevertheless left me with a sense of calm, tranquil relief, not because it worked perfectly or fully yet — it doesn’t — but because of the future it promises with a very telling prelude of things to come.
And yes, fear: for every mile I drove down the 101 freeway here in Marin County in Northern California, I felt myself grow more conscientious, more nervous, more — yes, fearful — of the other drivers than I’d ever felt before, notwithstanding my dad’s immeasurably helpful defensive driving instruction since even before I could drive.
“I am entirely at the mercy of some asshat driving a three ton SUV while babbling away on bluetooth, fiddling with the GPS, and juggling three kids in the rear seat, probably all while trying to successfully negotiate a Big Mac into their gaping maws and respond to a text message.”
“My god,” I thought to myself, “this is insane. Almost none of these cars around me right now could avoid even the most mundane of traffic accidents. I am entirely at the mercy of some asshat driving a three ton SUV while babbling away on bluetooth, fiddling with the GPS, and juggling three kids in the rear seat, probably all while trying to successfully negotiate a Big Mac into their gaping maws and respond to a text message.”
In an act of validation too coincidental to make up, my wife and I were stopped in heavy traffic on a road near our house, just the other day, when we got rear-ended.
And then, in an act of validation too coincidental to make up, my wife and I were stopped in heavy traffic on a road near our house, just the other day, when we got rear-ended. Thankfully, nobody was harmed — including and especially my wife and the other driver’s two babies in her car — and damage to our car was minimal. Still, the physical impact was startling — indeed, our heads smacking against the headrests doing their admirable job of whiplash mitigation certainly shook us up a bit — and, for my wife who’d never experienced such a thing before, it was genuinely scary.
The impact was surely less than 20 or 25 mph at most. Yet still it caused vehicle damage to the bumpers doing their job valiantly; still it shook us up; and still, it startled, and legitimately scared us. To imagine such an impact at two or three times that speed; to imagine a side impact, or worse, was terrifying. This had been, for all intents and purposes, just a mere fender-bender.
But then, to recognize that nearly all* such collisions could be eliminated as autonomous driving tech is eventually mandated and starts to permeate through cars on our streets the same way seat belts, airbags, antilock brakes, traction control systems, and soon, rearview cameras, have slowly done, it’s at best comical, and at worst infuriating, to read of other people’s fears and uncertainties with forthcoming autonomous driving systems.
Tesla’s Autopilot system has its flaws. But then, it’s only the first generation of this new technology. And to be sure, it is by far and away the most advanced such tech on the market today. Don’t forget the astonishing 45mph T-bone collision narrowly avoided on that dark, stormy night in Seattle.
The point is, for people to ridicule, fear, or otherwise hope to delay the eventual mandate of autonomous vehicles is arguably more outrageous than the impossibly dangerous cars of the early twentieth century: engineers of that era should be excused as they were limited not only by what they knew, but crucially, by what they didn’t know.
It’s a legitimately special thing when one can recognize not only what they know, but crucially what they do not know.
And that’s a big difference between then and now: once upon a time, we didn’t even know that seat belts could save lives; that smoking kills; that we are contributing to climate change. Indeed, it’s a legitimately special thing when one can recognize not only what they know, but crucially what they do not know.
We are more advanced today than we were in the twentieth century: thanks to decades of statistical data, countless physical crash tests, and millions upon millions of hours of supercomputer-crunched simulations and tests, we are capable of finally saying “wait, this isn’t ok, we’re clearly missing something here,” and, “we can, and must, do better.”
The point is, we don’t need to wait for kids in the 2090s to look back, mouths agape, at our stupidity today, the way we now look back at the muscle cars of the 1950s; we have at our disposal, thanks to our technology, to already recognize where we’re falling short, and to expedite a solution as fast as practicable.
This then is not a time to fear self-driving cars, but rather to embrace them, and to fear a world without them. After all, if you’re afraid to be in a car without seat belts, air bags, and safety glass, then you should be terrified to be in a three ton vehicle driven by mere humans rather than by a computer.
So yes, as I continue to write and immerse myself in all things about this burgeoning, exciting field of autonomous vehicles, and yes, especially now that I’ve experienced what life can — and will — be like now that I’ve driven an Autopilot-enabled Tesla Model S, I am fearful of the current status quo. It’s not ok, it’s absurdly dangerous, and it needs to change.
NB. I’ve just received an invitation to a special 1 hour talk with Tesla executive Sterling Anderson this Friday, the 11th of December, in Corte Madera, California. Be sure to check back after for a full debriefing of the event!
* Tellingly, The Economist reported that “A study by the Eno Centre for Transportation, a non-profit group, estimates that if 90% of cars on American roads were autonomous, the number of accidents would fall from 5.5m a year to 1.3m, and road deaths from 32,400 to 11,300.”