Tesla’s new autonomous car
The future is finally here, ladies and gentlemen. A tech race started in the 1980’s to develop autonomous cars has finally reached its zenith. Autonomous cars are real, they’re now, and they’re ready to hit the road…kind of.
Elon Musk (who else?) is at the forefront of these developments. The Tesla founder gave a statement in December of last year, telling Fortune that Teslas “will have complete autonomy in approximately two years.”
But Tesla’s first generation Autopilot service, which has many car fanatics drooling, is already here. Autopilot’s automated control features can steer, change lanes, parallel park, and even drive on highways, with little intervention from the driver.
There are still many limitations, but the strides made in the past few years are unbelievable. Already car manufacturers like Mercedes and Volvo, and even tech giants like Google have begun developing and testing autonomous vehicles.
Autonomous vs. Self-Driving
So where do we draw the line? Well until you can get in a car, push a button, and then snooze until you reach your destination, we won’t really have completely self-driving cars.
It’s an important distinction to make, because right now we’re looking at vehicles that still need constant human supervision, even on autopilot. That’s what autonomous means.
There’s actually an official spectrum, released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (image below), and we still haven’t gotten too far past Level 2.
Tesla’s car, for example, is able to perform automation of certain tasks, such as changing lanes on a highway, but still can’t stop at a red light (although neither can some humans).
Thus far, there has been limited controversy, but as one critic pointed out, it only takes one incident for everything to come crashing down. There have already been a few YouTube videos of Teslas having close calls.
And Musk’s ambitious two-year projection might also give some pause. What if it’s a little too ambitious? As exciting as the prospects are, we still have a long way to go before we can 100% sure of the safety of these vehicles. Is 2 years really enough?
A recent AAA study found that 75% of drivers would not feel safe in an autonomous vehicle. Public phobia, whether founded or unfounded, could have a significant impact on the success of this burgeoning industry.
The last thing Tesla, or the automated car industry, needs right now is a catastrophe like the Virgin Galactic shuttle crash to spark all these tech-phobic biases and bring the entire thing under public and legislative scrutiny.
Though as an aside, it was Virgin Galactic whose spacecraft crashed, not SpaceX (of which Musk is also CEO). I personally don’t think Musk will ever do a half-job on anything, so I’m really not worried about Tesla.
But that doesn’t preclude other automakers, who might feel pressured by a necessity to keep up with Tesla, from taking risks.
Again, these are all only speculations. At this time, there are still a lot of unknowns. Personally, I’m very hopeful about this new technology. I think we’re looking at the future here, and it’s unfolding right before us.
Like any new technology, there are going to be a lot of naysayers. Safety and passenger comfort level in these vehicles are going to be real issues, and in the next few years, they may become headline topics. But any danger these vehicles pose is going to be a raindrop in an ocean.
On average, 6 million car accidents occur in the U.S. every year. Driving under the influence, road rage, distracted driving, these are just some of the problems that come with human drivers.
Problems that machines wouldn’t have. Not to mention reaction time, judgment and maneuvering skill, which would all almost definitely be superior with automated technology.
Right now, it’s at 6 million, but with autonomous vehicles, that statistic is bound to decline—tremendously. Within a few decades that number could conceivably decrease to zero. And that’s saying something.