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On Tesla and Autopilot

There have been a few incidents of Teslas involved in accidents, where critics (in some cases including the driver of the car) claim that the Autopilot is to blame. In response to questions I’ve received about my opinions about these accidents, I would like to point out a few things, as well as offer some opinions:

  1. Autopilot is disabled by default. In order to enable it, one has to accept terms and conditions for its use.
  2. Autopilot is not intended to replace the driver. It is a driver assist system, not an autonomous car system.
  3. The car prompts you to keep your hands on the wheel at all times whenever you enable Autopilot. If you leave your hands off, Autopilot will automatically disable itself after some time.
  4. The fatal crash in the end of June involved a driver who was not paying attention, and was apparently watching a movie when the crash occurred.

If you keep your hands on the steering wheel, and keep your attention on the road, you can (and at times need to) override the Autopilot; retaking control. To the very best of my knowledge, there has not been any accidents where the Autopilot has caused accidents that would not have occurred had the driver been paying attention.

I would also note that Tesla’s record with Autopilot is significantly better than any other system out there, including driving yourself. Tesla has a reported 100 million miles driven on Autopilot as of May this year. In that time, there have been very few accidents; so few, in fact, that I doubt if it is statistically significant.

As for Consumer Report’s criticism and recommendation; they show clearly that they do not understand what they are dealing with. Teslas Autopilot, like the autopilot system on an airplane, is not an autonomous system, and neither is intended to be one. Had safety-critical systems not been fully tested prior to release, the rate of accidents would be much higher, and Autopilot would indeed not have been safe to use.

It should be noted that the fatal crash in the end of June was the first fatality involving a car with Autopilot enabled, in 130 million miles (or more than 200 million kilometers). The same number worldwide for cars that do not have Autopilot is 60 million miles (or just shy of 100 kilometers); in the US that number is 94 million miles. Whichever number you pick; the fact remains that Tesla and Autopilot are ahead of the curve, and continue to push to make cars safer on a regular basis.

Simply put; it is time to disregard the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt), employ System 2, and realize that using Autopilot is safer than not using it.

To be clear: I don’t use the Autopilot as a replacement for myself and my driving skills. I use it to augment and improve them. In most instances, the Autopilot performs more than adequately on its own. In those rare instances where it doesn’t, overriding it is a simple matter, accomplished by pressing the brakes, pushing the TACC control lever forward, or using the steering wheel.

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