Tesla’s Autopilot and the double standard for automotive safety systems

This summer saw the inevitable controversy arise when a Tesla automobile was involved in a fatal traffic accident while operating in its headline-grabbing Autopilot mode. While early reports seem to point toward human error by both parties involved (the truck driver turning across traffic without sufficient time and space, and the Tesla driver allegedly watching a movie while behind the wheel), many people are debating what responsibility falls onto Tesla and its autonomous-driving functions.

Many have called out Musk’s “open beta” roll-out of the technology as irresponsible and dangerous, while others have wondered how a system with supposed redundancies could have misread the emergency situation so poorly. Regardless, it’s put the entire industry of autonomous cars under scrutiny as people ask themselves whether this is the kind of technology that should be on the road at all.

The fact of the matter is that this all stems from the age-old human instinct to fear things they do not understand. Autonomous-driving technology has been intentionally marketed as a hyper-advanced, quantum leap in car technology, closer resembling a NASA planetary rover in terms of technology than a Ford Focus. In reality though, it’s a step or two along the spectrum upon which we’ve been on for a long, long time: increasingly advanced driver safety systems.

Every car today features at least a few of these: airbags, ABS braking and traction control systems, to name a few. These safety features were all designed with the aim of reducing the huge number of vehicle injuries and fatalities every year, and it can be argued that all have done so. That being said, every single one of these technologies has had serious, fatal malfunctions, particularly in early roll-out, but even in mature phases of the technology.

New solutions will always have unfortunate growing pains that sadly result in the loss of human life.

Take for example airbag systems. Between 1990 and 2007, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recorded 284 fatalities tied to airbags. While some of these were related to people of small stature, or extremely close driver positioning to the airbag ejection point, others were related to faulty deployment — or, in other words, a malfunction of the technology.

Since initial introduction in the early 1970s, airbags have gone under numerous revisions and improvements to safety. Despite these improvements, in 2016, malfunctions in this technology still remain, most recently with airbag maker Takata having to issue the largest recall in history, involving over 28 million cars and with an associated death toll of at least 11 so far.

Assistive Braking Systems (ABS) doesn’t enjoy a clean record, either. Numerous studies have indicated that ABS systems can actually cause a higher incidence of dangerous vehicle rollovers in certain situations.

Despite these edge cases of malfunction, or risks in marginal conditions, both airbags and ABS technologies enjoy a ubiquitous presence in cars. In fact, most consumers would simply not buy a car without these features today. It’s recognized that, while not perfect, these systems on the balance provide greater safety than otherwise. Malfunctions have dogged both technologies for decades, but nobody has thrown out the baby with the bath water, so to speak.

Yet here we are with what amounts to more advanced versions of cruise control — which some companies have branded “autopilot” or “autonomous” to appeal to our ever-increasing “technophilia” — and we hold it up to a far higher standard than these preceding technologies. Broken down into constituent parts, these systems could be called things like “blind-spot warning system” and “rear-end collision avoidance” and they would likely be embraced eagerly. But when brought together under such terms as “artificial intelligence” or “self-driving,” people seem to immediately gain a sense of unease about the whole affair.

The fact of the matter is that our vehicles are creeping up a trajectory of better safety through technology that we’ve always been on. Rolling out new solutions will always have unfortunate growing pains that sadly result in the loss of human life, but the stark reality is that they always have. Our inherent anxiousness or even fear of cars taking away our control of the vehicle is unfounded, because, in many ways, we’ve already let them.