NYT Opinion Page Editors Double Down On Being Dangerously Wrong About What Automated Driving Is

Misleading people with false, dangerous information can't be waived away by calling it an opinion

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Screenshot: NYT, Twitter

Last week, I wrote about an opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times that was written by a writer who had borrowed a Cadillac Escalade and spent an entire road trip being very confused by how the Level 2 driver assist system was working. The author of that piece desperately and potentially dangerously confused a car with driver-assist features with a car that could actually drive itself. There is a massive difference between the two things, and the general public’ confusion about it is a huge problem. A problem that the NYT seems to be just fine with.

The reason I say this is because someone actually reached out to the NYT Opinion copy chief to see if any corrections or clarifications could be issued that might help people understand the very real and very significant differences between a driver assist system and an actual self-driving system (which doesn’t exist as something people can buy today).

This was the response from the NYT Opinion copy chief:

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Let’s just pull that quote out of the tweet there so we can really drink it in, why not:

“In short, although the auto industry may distinguish between advanced driver-assistance systems and autonomous or self-driving vehicles, most people do not, and we do not expect them to.”

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This approach is, to couch it in genteel terms, fucking terrible. Okay, NYT, even if you “do not expect” people to know the difference between advanced driver-assistance systems and self-driving vehicles, isn’t kind of part of your whole point of being to, you know, inform people?

It’s like saying that yeah, although the drug industry may distinguish between large mounds of cocaine and big piles of confectioner’s sugar, most people do not, and we do not expect them to.

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I get that it’s the Opinion page, and the NYT Opinion page has a rich, proud history of being composed of compressed blocks of absolute sewage. But this is is not a matter of simple semantics. The differences between a full self-driving system and an advanced driver assist system are not a matter of opinion.

If you work for the NYT and you’d like to know what the actual distinctions are—so as to you know, not put people in mortal danger — then let me help by clarifying the differences between a full self-driving system that you will find on precisely zero (0) cars for sale to day, and an Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) that you’ll find on many vehicles today, from Ford to Cadillac to Volvo to Tesla and more.

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Here’s the key piece of information: an ADAS (Advanced Driver Assist System) does not allow the car drive itself. With these systems, also called Level 2 semi-automated systems, the person in the driver’s seat is in constant control of the car. It’s like cruise control.

An ADAS system may require the driver to take total control at any time, possibly with no warning at all. As a result, the driver’s attention needs to remain focused on the road, what the car is doing, the overall situation at all times, just like they were driving, only that task has been changed from the usual active task of driving into a vigilance task of monitoring how the machine is driving, and remaining ready to intercede.

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This sort of vigilance task is, by the way, the kind of things humans generally suck at doing.

I reached out to the same @NYTopinion copy chief myself asking them to talk about this, but have yet to get a response.

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So, New York Times Opinion page, I’ll just tell you what I was going to say right here: you have to do better than this. You are correct that the general public is confused about the differences between ADAS systems and full self-driving, and part of why is because sloppy bullshit about these technologies keeps getting written and published, some of it right on your pages.

The differences between these systems isn’t any more an “opinion” than the differences between a kiwi fruit and a small rabid hedgehog are. They may seem similar if you’re not really paying attention, but when you bring them to your mouth one gives a fuzzy sensation, then a tangy burst of flavor, and the other gives a fuzzy sensation, then intense pain as a crazed animal bites through your lip.

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Confusing these two systems is exactly how crashes with L2 systems happen. You know there’s confusion here, you have direct access to the people who are confused, and you choose to do nothing, or even make the situation worse?

Knock it off. Stop being shitheads, and make this important information available to your readers.

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It’s absurd I even had to write this.