I have some thoughts about the fatal crash of an autopiloted Tesla in Florida that occurred on Thursday. Get caught up here. Before I say anything about the social implications, I want to say that of course this is a tragic accident and I feel deeply for Mr. Brown’s family. What a strange circumstance to have to deal with, especially since Mr. Brown was such a fan of the technology and its potential.
The tenor of coverage surrounding accidents like this is usually something like “will this be the end of driverless cars in America?” I find this very unfortunate, because we badly need this technology. It will absolutely save lives, reduce accidents, keep traffic flowing, and make driving in general a more pleasurable experience. The fact of the matter is that driving right now is not a safe endeavor. It has become safER, over the decades, thanks to improvements in manufacturing and safety measures like seat belts and airbags; however, that same technology has been known to kill people. See the recent recall regarding Takata airbags. That doesn’t signal the end of airbags. It means we need to figure out how to consistently use airbags safely.
Accidents involving autopilot don’t mean we need to stop pursuing autopilot as a means of driving cars. It just means we need to work harder to make it practical.
Because of driver inability to stay unaffected by emotion while driving, or because of the limit on human reaction times, there will always be fatal accidents due to human error. Making autopilot the standard of driving will eliminate that subset of accidents. It will introduce its own set of problems, which will sometimes involve fatalities, but on the whole as studied thus far it will reduce fatalities overall. It will improve traffic, safety, and even gas consumption. We need to make this technology the standard and we shouldn’t let fear dictate this issue. From the article linked above: “The crash also casts doubt on whether autonomous vehicles in general can consistently make split-second, life-or-death driving decisions on the highway.”
Humans certainly can’t do that consistently, so please explore other ways to make driving safer.