Self-Driving Cars to Hit the Road in Larger Numbers

Self-driving cars have quickly gone from being a distant futuristic fantasy to a reality. In fact, thousands of Teslas are about to become capable of driving themselves without help from the person behind the wheel. However, questions remain about whether or not these self-driving technologies are safe.

In October of 2016, the CEO and founder of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, announced that all models of Tesla built after that date would come with the hardware, but not yet the software, needed to enable what the company calls “Enhanced Autopilot” features. These features include the car’s ability to exit the highway, change highways, be sent to or summoned from a garage, and to adjust speed to match conditions, all without driver control. According to Musk, the new vehicles will receive the software updates that will begin to enable these features within a matter of weeks, which could result in a sudden jump in the number of autonomous cars on US roads.

The Tesla self-driving features have not gone without controversy throughout their development period. Tesla has been beta-testing self-driving features in markets throughout the US for months, and while the cars have largely been safe on the road, there have been safety concerns. At least three Teslas have been involved in auto accidents while in self-driving mode, including one fatal accident in May of 2016 in Florida. Since the time that these accidents occurred, Tesla representatives have announced that the self-driving software has been improved such that those accidents would not have occurred with the current version of the technology.

Some safety groups feel that both the technology, and the users, need more time to develop before self-driving capabilities become ubiquitous. Earlier this year, Consumer Reports published an editorial calling for Tesla to disable the self-driving features in its vehicles until the manufacturer could ensure that safeguards existed to ensure that drivers remained attentive while not in control of their vehicles. The nonprofit consumer watchdog noted that Tesla’s marketing campaign highlighting the car’s ability to drive itself without assistance from the driver offered a false impression that the driver could check out while behind the wheel. Consumer Reports vice president Laura MacCleery pointed out, “‘Autopilot’ can’t actually drive the car, yet it allows consumers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time. Tesla should disable automatic steering in its cars until it updates the program to verify that the driver’s hands are on the wheel.” The piece also cited studies showing the difficulty in regaining the attention of a driver who had been operating a vehicle in self-driving mode, with subjects needing between three and 17 seconds to take control of a car after they had been allowed to focus on something other than the road while behind the wheel. In this amount of time, a car could travel between 100 feet and a quarter of a mile if operating at highway speeds. Additionally, many states lack laws on the extent to which self-driving cars are legal, and the federal government has only been able to provide voluntary guidelines, rather than binding laws, governing these vehicles.

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