The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the main body for road safety in the US. Their mission is to achieve the ‘highest standards of excellence in motor vehicle and highway safety’.
Right now the NHTSA is investigating an accident that could be the most important investigation they’ve had since their establishment in 1970.
On 7 May in Williston, Florida, 40 year old Joshua Brown was driving along a divided highway in his Tesla Model S. He had engaged Tesla’s ‘autopilot’ function.
Tesla’s autopilot function is their early attempt at self driving car technology. Tesla explains the autopilot,
‘…increases the driver’s confidence behind the wheel with features to help the car avoid hazards and reduce the driver’s workload. While Model S can’t make traffic disappear, it can make it a lot easier, safer, and more pleasant to endure.’
The autopilot is built in to all Model S and Model X cars, and will also feature in the upcoming Model 3 cars. It’s engaged and updated ‘over-the-air’ by Tesla. Some of the functions of the autopilot include auto steer, auto lane change, and automatic emergency steering and side collision warning.
Take, for example, a situation where a car swerves into you from the side because the driver doesn’t see you in their blindspot. In this situation the Tesla is designed to automatically steer away from the hazard, making sure that the safety of the driver and passengers is maintained.
And the function has been working well. Just weeks before 7 May, Joshua Brown recorded dash-cam footage of his Model S actively preventing a side collision thanks to the autopilot.
But on 7 May the autopilot didn’t perform as expected.
A blog post from Tesla explains what happened on that fateful day.
‘What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S.’
Sadly, Joshua died in the accident.
This is the first recorded death from a passenger in a car with automated driving technology engaged. As such, the NHTSA is conducting a full investigation into the cause of the accident and the performance and safety of Tesla’s autopilot feature.
So what does this mean for self-driving car technology? Well, initial reaction is it will push back the introduction of self driving car technology. Or even worse, kill it. But that’s simply not the case. What this shows is that, when a technology as important and game changing as this is rushed to market in an imperfect state, it can cause serious concerns. And, sadly, the loss of life.
Only a few months ago in an interview with The Verge, Trent Victor, senior technical leader of crash avoidance at Volvo had this to say about autopilot,
‘It gives you the impression that it’s doing more than it is.
‘[Tesla’s Autopilot] is more of an unsupervised wannabe.’
Then about three weeks ago Peter Mertens, Volvo’s Head of Research and Development claimed ‘Every time I drive [with Autopilot switched on], I’m convinced it’s trying to kill me.’ Of course Mertens was unaware of the death of Joshua Brown when he made his comments, but it’s a scary coincidence.
Mertens, Volvo, and the rest of the car making community are taking a more conservative — and appropriate — approach. Mertens says,
‘Anyone who says ‘we have systems that are better than human drivers’ is lying to you…Anyone who moves too early is risking the entire autonomous industry. We’re the safety brand, and we’re taking things slowly. Until the systems are better than a good human driver, Volvo won’t go there.’
The point is that, while a death under autopilot is a tragedy, it won’t kill off self driving car tech. It will instead require the technology to get better and safer.
Self driving cars are coming. The technology is certain to enter the mass market.
The self driving car trend is the single biggest change to the world since the very first car rolled off the production line. It will change the entire car industry. It will change transportation. It will change how we connect with each other and interact as a society.
You might not be able to fully appreciate the magnitude of the impact right now, but it’s happening. And it’s one of the most exciting opportunities for investment that I’ve ever seen.
Now if you’re still not convinced that a death from autonomous driving won’t slow down this trend, then have a look at what BMW announced the day after Tesla’s sad news…
Is this the most formidable partnership in self driving cars?
BMW is eager to get into the self driving car market. But to compete they need partners who can develop the ‘brain’ of a self driving car.
And boy has BMW gone full throttle into this huge trend.
BMW has found the perfect partnership with two of the world’s leading self driving technology companies. BMW, Mobileye NV and Intel Corp will now be teaming up to bring fully autonomous vehicles to the streets by 2021. That’s a very short, but realistic, five years away.
This also complements targets by other car makers, like the Nissan Renault Alliance, to get self driving cars on the road and into the mainstream by 2020.
In an announcement recently, Mobileye said the path to fully autonomous vehicles would be complex. However, the end results will change lives and societies for the better.
The BMW iNEXT model will be the foundation for the group’s autonomous driving strategy. It will set the basis for fleets of self driving cars. These cars will not only operate on highways, but in urban areas as well.
Instead of taking a traditional Uber, taxi, bus or train, you soon might be calling up a self driving taxi to pick you up. It will arrive, you’ll get in and it will take you where you want to go. When it’s time to return, another one will get you. It might be ‘Uber Self Driving’ with Audi cars. It might be ‘Lyft Autonomous’ with GM cars. It might just be an independent self driving car fleet that operates in your area.
Whatever the future picture looks like, one thing is for certain — it’s full of self driving cars.
The goal of the BMW, Mobileye and Intel collaboration is to develop tech that enables drivers to not only take their hands off the steering wheel, but to ultimately turn their mind off. This is defined as ‘Level 4’ autonomous driving, where the driver is simply a passenger. All three companies are convinced that automated driving tech will make travel safer and easier.
Mobileye’s Co-founder, Professor Amnon Shashua, believes the partnership, ‘[M]arks an important milestone for the automotive industry as we enter a world of new mobility.’
Self-driving cars may have taken a hit in public perception after the recent tragedy, but time will prove that a trend this huge can’t be stopped.
Editor, Money Morning