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Self-Driving Vehicles: How Safe Is this Emerging Technology?

The new fad in Europe and America presently are cars that do not need the involvement of a driver before they can navigate in traffic. Although this technology has been there for some years, its current pace of development has drawn a huge crowd of new admirers.

Indeed the latest Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” option has Autopilot features like changing lanes on highways and automatic car parking without the prompting of a diver.

Currently, new Tesla cars emerging have the hardware needed in the future for full self-driving in almost all circumstances. The system is designed to be able to conduct short and long-distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat. With the new Tesla Vision cameras, sensors and computing power, Tesla is expected to navigate tighter, more complex roads.

All one needs to do in the near future is get in and tell the car where to go. If one does not say anything, the car looks at one’s calendar and take them to the last assumed destination or home if nothing is on the calendar.

The Tesla figures out the optimal route, navigate urban streets, manage complex intersections with traffic lights, stop near signs and roundabouts, and handle densely packed freeways with cars moving at high speed. When one arrives at their destinations, they will simply need to step out at the entrance after which the car will enter “park seek” mode, automatically search for a spot, and park itself. A tap on your phone summons it back to you.

This might look perfect? However, recent occurrences paint a different picture. A Tesla driver recently lost his life in a ghastly motor accident. Although various reports have it that the autopilot mode must have necessitated the accident, police authorities are still investigating the Tesla feature as a contributing factor.

According to the California Highway Patrol (CHP), they noted that the car’s autopilot “was engaged” before the wreck, but later added saying “no final determination made.”

The driver by the name Hendrickson was said to have boasted of the car’s autopilot feature on several occasions. His social media accounts are filled with words of glowing confidence he had for the amazing features of his Tesla Model 3. The father of three was a fanatic of the self-drive idea. One could see this clearly from his social media platforms.

A video on his Instagram account showed him sitting in the driver’s seat without touching the wheel or pressing down on the pedals as the vehicle drove through freeway traffic. The video had the caption, “Best carpool buddy possible; even takes the boring traffic for me.”

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Another comment on another clip stated, “Coming home from LA after work, thank God, self-drive. Best car ever!”

Tesla is one of several car companies introducing increasingly autonomous features into cars meant to be operated by human drivers. In September 2020, the company reintroduced the term “Enhanced Autopilot” for a subset of features that provides full autopilot on highways, parking, and summon.

Although Tesla vehicles currently feature the hardware necessary for future ‘Full Self-Driving’ capabilities, they are only capable of ‘Autopilot’ and that is Tesla’s advanced driver assistance: a system that can steer, accelerate and brake automatically with driver supervision.

Tesla’s ideas for their cars have always sounded great but part of the concerns against it has always been the question of safety. How safe are these cars? While receiving the Axel Springer Award for innovation in Germany, the billionaire founder admitted that many countries have regulations that do not permit self-driving technology.

Tesla claims that with or without Autopilot engaged, its cars are substantially safer than the average car. But since the company introduced the autopilot feature in 2015, there have been at least 11 deaths in 9 crashes in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) explains self-driving technology as a set of levels from 0 to 5, and self-driving capability starts at Level 3. At that level, the car can in certain instances manage most aspects of driving, including monitoring the environment. But the driver is prompted to take over when a situation arises that the car cannot handle on its own.

Tesla admits that its full self-driving technology is at level two. How it will manage to jump from this stage to level 5 by the end of the year as promised by Elon Musk leaves so much for wonder.

Tesla’s Autopilot features allow the car to steer, accelerate, and brake within its lane. It uses the car’s eight cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, radar, and onboard computer to read lane paint on the road and detect surrounding cars.

Although Autopilot is legal in the US, it is facing regulatory approval delays in Europe, including Germany. One Munich court even banned Tesla from advertising Autopilot in the country due to concerns consumers have been misled about the technology’s capabilities.

Amidst the security concerns, some have said the initiative has already been set in motion, and that either now or in the future, it will be perfected. Regrettably, great people like Hendrickson had to die to get to that dream. Provided the autopilot was responsible for his death, it will be used to identify the bug in the autopilot and will be fixed immediately.

Just like a commentator highlighted, “Most new inventions are usually dangerous to use during the test-run stages. Like it or not, self-driving cars have come to stay and will help save many lives in the future. Sadly this man has lost his life in the early stages of a technology that will save others’ lives in future.”

In a world with so many factors and uncertainties, self-driving will take a long while to be perfected, even with the best sensors. Proponents of the cars have said self-driving cars are a great invention that should be given the support they need particularly as they can see more views at a time than human beings; hence they should be able to react faster to errors than humans.

Tesla has equally warned users to always be conscious when using the self-drive feature because it is more of a driving assistance than an autopilot.

Nevertheless, end-users of the Tesla feature said that they found that in most cases the feature merges onto the highway too late and way at the end of a merging lane. They equally fault the decelerating ability and the fact that the system keeps the car in a lane too long after passing a vehicle that is travelling at a slower speed on the same lane.

Apart from this, the auto park is sometimes slow. According to automotive experts, the biggest gripes with all Teslas are the lack of cross-traffic detection, radar-based blindspot monitoring, and the lack of a HUD or 360° cameras.

Conversely, others are of the view that there is no perfecting the autopilot for road transportation. This is in view of the fact that asides from traffic, other road conditions will pose as a setback.

Super Cruise by Cadillac and Tesla’s Autopilot are some of the most advanced systems available on self-driving technology. But they face problems in inclement weather. The problem is that, in conditions such as rain, snow, fog, and so on, visibility decreases, and by extension the effectiveness of those technologies.

In the same vein, most cynics have said the problem they have with the Tesla brand is the fact that it promotes Autopilot as if it is the world’s most advanced self-driving system when it is not.

As earlier mentioned, there are 5 levels of autonomous driving, from 0 to 5. Autopilot is a Level 2 system, which the Department of Transportation defines as “partial automation” that requires the driver to “remain engaged with the driving task and monitor the environment at all times.”

Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety describes Autopilot as “an intentionally deceptive name being used for a set of features that are essentially an advanced cruise control system.”

According to him, “Tesla’s marketing is leading consumers to foreseeably misuse the technology in a dangerous way. Users are led to believe the vehicle can navigate any roadway. The rising body count suggests Autopilot is not in fact a replacement for a driver.”

Even so, self-driving technology does not mean that one should leave the steering completely. With the features the Full Self-Driving package currently offered by Tesla, the system is not anywhere near what one can call “self-driving”. With this knowledge, perhaps another Tesla driver who allegedly lost his life in a Silicon Valley crash while playing a video game on his smartphone would not have died. But what is the overall essence and value of a full self-driving car if one still has to maintain some level of human control over it?