I think a lot about Tesla’s Autopilot, every time I drive, and when I comment on the Internet. I have some things I want to say to potential users.
Autopilot doesn’t drive your car; Autopilot helps you drive your car. If you decide not to drive the car, Autopilot will keep the car going in its lane at a reasonable speed for a while, but you’re leaving yourself open to injury or even death for yourself and others.
So if Autopilot can kill people, what good is it? Human drivers kill people all the time. There were 40,000 traffic fatalities in the US in 2017. What Autopilot does is to reduce the chance of an accident with an attentive human driver. Here’s how it does that:
- Autopilot reduces fatigue. Keeping the car centered in its lane and maintaining the distance to the car in front is a tedious and monotonous task. Autopilot will do those things for you. It’s particularly useful in a traffic jam with stop and go traffic. One moment of inattentiveness can result in a collision when someone stop in front of you. The car may catch that sudden stop and brake in time.
- Autopilot allows the driver to pay more attention to the traffic. By not focusing on that target spot down the road to steer the car by, the driver is freed to look around at traffic conditions. The driver has more bandwidth available to deal with traffic situation.
- Autopilot provides blindspot warning, making it less likely that the driver will have a collision when changing lanes.
- If the driver falls asleep and loosens contact with the wheel, Autopilot will sound audible alerts that might wake someone up, and if not the car will put on its emergency flashers, slow and stop.
- Autopilot reduces accidents due to inattention. Inevitably a driver will shift attention away from the road–to set the air conditioning or change the navigation destination. They could be getting a drink of water or eating a snack. In those moments of inattention, the car might wander out of its lane or the driver fail to see a sudden stop ahead. Autopilot will keep the car in its lane and probably handle the stop. That’s one fewer accident scenario.
- Autopilot can respond more quickly to certain emergency situations, and can even detect a sudden stop two cars ahead. I saw a video of a Tesla dodging a car that veered suddenly into its lane.
Autopilot provides an opportunity for an attentive driver to be more attentive to traffic and helps the driver stay alert. It’s a wonderful tool that I use every day to good effect. It’s not as useful for a driver that’s being reckless and not paying attention.