Saturday, July 02, 2016

Impatiently awaiting the unconditional surrender of the human driver

In recent days, much was written about the fatal traffic accident involving a Tesla S in auto-pilot mode. In an ironic twist, the deceased driver, Joshua Brown, 40, of Ohio, published several fascinating videos about the auto-pilot mode of his beloved car.

It appears that the car's camera did not detect the trailer crossing the road due direct glare from the sun. The long range radar of the vehicle apparently also failed to detect the crane due to its hollow shape. There are some indications that Mr. Brown's Tesla was moving very fast. This would explain why Frank Baressi, age 62, the driver of the tractor trailer, did not see the Tesla and cut its path.

With full details of the accident still missing, one can reasonably conjecture that, cut off by a large vehicle with no warning, the accident would have occurred even in the presence of a fully alert human driver.

Notwithstanding the dozens of articles about the accident, the responsibility of Frank Baressi, the driver of the tractor trailer, is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Had the accident involved two human drivers without auto-pilot, we would have instinctively assigned some of the blame on Mr. Barressi. With auto-pilot in the picture, we tend to focus on the technology. Thus, we seem to set a higher bar of safety for auto-pilot, a technology in its infancy, than we do for human drivers.

In my mind, by focusing on the technology, we implicitly admit that humans can be (are?) bad drivers. We get impatient; we get tired; we get old; we drive under the influence of substances. The machine will never get tired, old, impatient or drunk. It will never overtake before a turn, succumb to road rage or cut the path of a bicycle. There is little doubt that after initial kinks solved, auto-pilot will significantly reduce road fatalities throughout the world, avoiding injuries and saving millions of lives. As such, I am impatiently awaiting the unconditional surrender of the human driver.

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