We’re barely a year removed from the fatal crash that killed Tesla owner Joshua Brown, whose semi-autonomous vehicle was traveling in its hands-somewhat-free Autopilot mode at the time of the accident. And still misleading bullshit about the current capability of autonomous tech continues to be floated: on Wednesday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee decreed that the technology behind autonomous vehicles is sound. Foolproof, he says.
In a charitable light, Inslee’s comments came as he—surrounded by executives from General Motors, Google and Uber—signed an executive order that will allow self-driving cars to be tested on Washington roads. Exciting times. Maybe he was caught up in the moment.
But that doesn’t excuse him from trotting this out (emphasis ours):
“One thing I know about radar, it doesn’t drive drunk, it doesn’t drive distracted,” Inslee said. “We humans are really good at a lot of things, driving cars isn’t necessarily one of them compared to the automated processes that are digital and foolproof. I just have huge confidence in the safety aspects of this.”
His comment pairs brilliantly with The Seattle Times headline of, “No driver? No Problem.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao recently offered a similar train of thought, though it wasn’t nearly as explicit as Inslee’s clear misconception of where autonomous tech stands today. On the Society of Automotive Engineers automation scale virtually used by everyone in the industry, most cars on the road today with self-driving functions are considered to be at Level 2, in which the vehicle can handle some roads on its own, but the driver must be paying attention and be ready to reassume control at any given moment. That is to say it’s not foolproof. Most carmakers invested in driverless cars don’t expect fully-autonomous vehicles to be ready for the mainstream until next decade—and even then, that’s an optimistic assessment. Even Tesla has admitted that it has to expect that some (idiot) drivers won’t pay attention to the road while using Autopilot.
It’s not that encouraging, either, that none of the purportedly knowledgable execs in Inslee’s presence apparently took the time to explain where things stand today.
The motivating factor behind the development of autonomous cars—that is, to drastically reduce the number of fatalities stemming from crashes—is noble, and it’s encouraging to see where the technology stands today. But all of the momentum could be brought to a grinding halt because some driver believed their “autonomous” car had the knowledge to freely move about the road on its own, and instead wound up dead.
Last year, Elon Musk offered up a critique of the media for its coverage of Autopilot crashes, saying the onslaught of what he perceived as negative attention is equivalent to murder and “effectively dissuade[s] people from using an autonomous vehicle.”
Here’s another take: This shit isn’t foolproof, yet. And though Musk and his colleagues try to stress that drivers today still need to pay attention when their automated features are deployed, it’s clear the message hasn’t gotten through to people like Jay Inslee. Stop misleading people.