We’ve all heard about the recent Tesla car crashes involving their “AutoPilot” product. One case resulted in a fatality as the system did not detect that truck turning in front of the car, and despite Tesla’s warnings that the driver should be paying attention it appears the driver was distracted at the time of the crash. Result, sadly, one less driver on the road.
The problem, from my perspective, is simple – driver assistance systems are being sold as driver replacement systems. Or, if not sold, they are being interpreted by the folks using the system as driver replacement systems. Tesla calls its system AutoPilot – which, in my mind, does make me think of autonomous driving, not driver assistance. Autopilot on a plane flies the plane, why wouldn’t a driver using an autopilot system on their car not expect the same.
We call our product Wingman, which doesn’t say pilot. It implies exactly what it is, that the system is there to help the pilot of the commercial vehicle – the driver. This is one of the reasons why every presentation that I do regarding Bendix technologies starts and ends with a reminder that the driver is always responsible for the safe operation of their vehicle. Driver assistance is there to help, but it does not replace the need for a safe and alert driver practicing safe driving habits.
There’s been so much hype about autonomous driving, and promises of the driverless vehicle arriving shortly. The Google car, the Tesla autopilot, etc. etc. It’s important to realize that this is creating a mindset that soon there will be no need for drivers, that vehicles will control themselves and we’ll just be able to sit back and enjoy texting, talking or other activities that don’t involve a steering wheel, accelerator or brakes while hurtling down the road at 60 or 70 miles per hour. Don’t bet on it…It’s not going to happen as quickly as folks think or would like to envision. There’s too much that needs to happen outside of the technology – from regulations on the federal, not state level, regarding performance of these systems to consumer acceptance, and more importantly, understanding about what these systems can and can’t do – the pathway to autonomous or driverless vehicles starts with increasing autonomy in driver assistance systems.
In fact, we should redefine and clarify – driverless is driverless; autonomous typically means autonomous applications that are designed to assist, not replace the driver. And, we need to communicate this in a very clear and meaningful way both in promoting the technologies as well as in the vehicle. If an autonomous system is in use, the driver needs to have hands on the wheel and butt in the driver seat or the system will loudly and annoyingly alert the driver that it is going to disengage. Three times in a power cycle and the system goes dormant and the driver has to drive. We can’t bury it in the operator’s manual – it needs to be clear, concise and direct. Use it properly or lose it quickly – before you or someone else gets hurt.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big proponent of these systems and appreciate the fact that they can and do help drivers on a daily basis. But we have to keep in mind the responsibility is still with the driver. We are not at the point of driverless vehicles – in fact, we’re far from it. We are, however, at the beginning of advancing systems to do more to help the driver on the road in a variety of situations. From collision mitigation today to more advanced systems that will offer lane keeping and other driver assistance technologies.
The future promises a great deal – and as a CDL holder I’m excited about the possibilities. But for now and the foreseeable future, it’s driver assistance, not driver replacement.
I’m not giving up my CDL anytime soon and neither should you!
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