A recent lawsuit filed against Tesla made an excellent case for why human-controlled driving is still exceedingly important, but it turns out Tesla itself seemed to have that on its mind while designing its famed Autopilot function, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report that cleared the automaker in a fatal 2016 crash.
What, you thought humans would be responsible and safe with semi-autonomous cars? Come on.
The report from NHTSA, America’s auto safety regulator, found no defects in the Autopilot software — a positive sign for car companies deeply involved in producing self-driving cars. But buried in the report is a nugget about the thinking of Tesla’s engineers as it designed Autopilot. From the report:
It appears that over the course of researching and developing Autopilot, Tesla considered the possibility that drivers could misuse the system in a variety of ways, including those identified above - i.e., through mode confusion, distracted driving, and use of the system outside preferred environments and conditions. Included in the types of driver distraction that Tesla engineers considered are that a driver might fail to pay attention, fall asleep, or become incapactitated [sic] while using Autopilot. The potential for driver misuse was evaluated as part of Tesla’s design process and solutions were tested, validated, and incorporated into the wide release of the product. It appears that Tesla’s evaluation of driver misuse and its resulting actions addressed the unreasonable risk to safety that may be presented by such misuse.
The report concluded that a recall of Tesla vehicles wasn’t necessary. In response to the report, sparked by a May 2016 crash in Florida involving a motorist driving a Model S in Autopilot, Tesla said “safety of our customers comes first, and we appreciate the thoroughness of NHTSA’s report and its conclusion.”
But the fact that Tesla’s engineers were testing scenarios for when drivers wouldn’t pay attention while using Autopilot itself says enough.
Autonomous technology isn’t (yet) advanced to the point you can doze off while behind the wheel. You still have to pay attention.