Self-driving cars hold the promise of saving thousands of lives each year on US roads, but does pointing out flaws with the technology effectively put people in danger?
That claim was put forth on Wednesday by Tesla Motors Inc chief executive officer Elon Musk, who criticized the media for harping on the relatively few crashes involving Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving system called Autopilot, while saying little about the about the 1.2 million people who die worldwide each year in human-driven vehicles.
“If, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using autonomous vehicles, you’re killing people,” said Musk, who expects his self-driving technology to be at least twice as safe as cars driven by humans.
The comments came as Musk announced that all new Tesla vehicles — including the lower-cost Model 3 — will have the hardware needed to drive themselves. The talk is bold, but experts say it is premature until self-driving cars prove they are better drivers than humans under any circumstances.
“Over time, after the technology has established itself, one would expect there would be a decrease in fatalities,” said Raj Rajkumar, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, who leads its autonomous vehicle research. “But this is too premature to make this claim. Tesla’s technology is known to be imperfect.”
In May, an Ohio man using Autopilot died when his Tesla Model S failed to spot a tractor-trailer crossing a divided highway. Neither the car nor the driver braked and the Model S crashed into the side of the trailer. US federal investigators are looking into Autopilot’s role in the crash.
Tesla’s Autopilot, introduced last year, can maintain a set speed and distance and keep the car in its lane, but the technology works mainly on highways and must be monitored by the driver. Autopilot will turn itself off if drivers have their hands off the wheel for too long.
Musk said Autopilot has already shown itself to be safer than humans.
He tweeted earlier this month that Tesla vehicles have been driven about 357 million kilometers in Autopilot mode, with one confirmed driver death. By comparison, the US fatality rate in 2014 was 2.16 deaths per 322 million kilometers traveled, according to US government data.
The new autonomous system has been in testing for more than a year, and Musk said it could cut worldwide deaths in half if all cars used it.
Rajkumar was skeptical and called the Tesla announcement “marketing hype.”
He said people should be skeptical of Tesla’s claims because of the Florida crash.
Self-driving technology “still needs to prove itself,” he said, adding that it has trouble operating in dense urban traffic and inclement weather.
Consumer Reports magazine is also concerned about semi-autonomous systems such as those that allow a car to steer itself. The magazine believes automakers like Tesla “should take stronger steps to ensure that vehicles with these systems are designed, deployed and marketed safely,” it said.
The new Tesla vehicles are to use Tesla-developed software and have more sensors. They will have eight cameras, compared with one in previous models, as well as advanced sonar and greater computing capacity.
Tesla said the system is fully autonomous and can work on city streets as well as highways. Buyers can pay US$3,000 for Autopilot or US$8,000 for the full self-driving system.
Tesla is to gradually roll out autonomous capability in software updates every few months, once there is enough data to prove it is safe, Musk said.
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