The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a hearing on Tuesday and found that Tesla’s semi-self-driving Autopilot technology contributed to a fatal crash last year involving one of the company’s Model S sedans.
This is serious business because the NTSB rarely investigates accidents on the nation’s roads; we usually hear about them when a major airline has a crash, and the agency often spends years investigating what happened.
Tuesday’s hearing confirmed the NTSB’s concern about an earlier preliminary finding: during the last 41 minutes of the driver’s trip, the Model S was in Autopilot for 37.5 minutes, and the driver had his hands off the wheel for a total of 37 minutes while the car was in that mode.
I’ve offered this point of view several times since news of the accident broke last year, but here it is again: I’ve tried out Autopilot and there’s no way any responsible driver should stop paying close attention while it’s in operation.
The technology is good, but after using it for only about 15 minutes on the highway, I found it abundantly clear that Autopilot is a long, long way from the magical experience of a car driving itself. Or even steering itself.
Tesla is rightly continuing to improve the technology with the idea that it can drastically improve safety. If Autopilot does someday delivery full or nearly full autonomy, it could go a long way toward lowering an appalling statistic: 35,000-40,000 people are killed in automobile-related accidents every year in the US alone.
Until the day when vehicles can truly drive themselves, we need to remind ourselves every time we take to roadways that cars can kill us. They’ve been killing us for a long time. They are much safer than they used to be, and Tesla has always made safety one of its highest priorities.
But for Tesla and all other carmakers, we’re still talking about a machine weighing upwards of 4,000 lbs. (or more) that can hit 100 mph without breaking a sweat. The physics do not favor human life in a crash.
The takeaway? Always drive carefully and attentively. Hide your phone. Don’t be mesmerized by the infotainment system. Observe the speed limit. And don’t expect that futuristic new technologies, however promising, will change these fundamentals anytime soon.