Weekly Brief: Tesla Tech Places Driverless Industry at Risk

Ever since an autonomous Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018, members of the self-driving car industry have come to a decision.

They have decided, independently and collectively, that it’s best to slow things down. No need to force pilots into full-blown commercial services. No need to remove safety drivers too soon or fret over production delays. When the reward at the end of the tunnel is so large (Strategy Analytics projects an industry value of $7Trn by 2050), the benefit of being first to market is outweighed by the risk of rushing and destroying your credibility in the process. Thus, everyone has agreed to proceed cautiously.

Everyone but Tesla. Last week the electric carmaker released an over-the-air update called Smart Summon that allows Tesla drivers to press a button on their smartphones and wait as their vehicles autonomously maneuver through parking lots to the driver’s location or their destination of choice. Given that this is Tesla we’re talking about and that no one loves to share videos of themselves in their cars as much as Tesla drivers do, the internet was soon flooded with videos of self-driving Tesla cars inching their way across asphalt with no one behind the wheel.

Others were less impressive. As our Phil Oakley reported, complaints soon cropped up that the function doesn’t work as advertised. Cars on Smart Summon have crashed into other cars, collided with garages and tried to cross two-lane streets and nearly being wrecked ion the process.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has taken notice. It hasn’t launched a formal investigation, yet, but it says it’s monitoring the situation and encourages all Tesla owners with examples of the Smart Summon feature malfunctioning to reach out. “Safety is NHTSA’s top priority and the agency will not hesitate to act if it finds evidence of a safety-related defect,” NHTSA said in a statement to Reuters.

This isn’t nearly enough. Elon Musk has proven himself all too willing to take advantage of regulatory grey areas to release autonomous or semi-autonomous features that the world, not to mention his own technology, isn’t ready for. When something goes awry – as now or drivers getting into serious accidents while Autopilot is engaged – Musk shrugs and blames it on the drivers for failing to read the fine print.

In the case of Smart Summon, Musk says that drivers are still responsible for their cars’ actions, even though they’re not in them. Granted, drivers can stop their vehicles remotely with a touch of their smartphone but that’s beside the point. The point is that Tesla shouldn’t release a feature like this, which could lead to fatalities, if the technology isn’t 100% prepared to manage all scenarios on its own. Since Tesla already has released it, and has proven itself willing to unleash technologies like this over and over again, lawmakers need to step up and pass regulation that creates a unified body of oversight for the industry, sets stringent standards and protocols and mandates industry-wide safety tests, trial periods and educational programs before any new autonomous deployment.

Last week Tesla made another acquisition on the self-driving car front. This time it was computer vision specialist DeepScale, which has a deep bench of engineering talent focused on AI models that can process vast amounts of data with little energy and time. The terms of the deal were undisclosed but what we do know is that Tesla plans to launch a robo-taxi service in 2020 and that this acquisition should make that more feasible.

We also know that, unlike Waymo, Cruise and others that are proceeding cautiously, Musk will not tiptoe into the waters. He has the uncheckered self-belief of a messiah and he’ll put us all in danger if regulators don’t act first.

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