Girardi | Keese

Hold On: Tesla Cars Aren't Fully Autonomous. Yet.

The buzz around self-driving cars has everyone excited - and some worried.

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Tesla Motors' current semi-autonomous technology augments, but does not replace, the human controlling the vehicle. This technology could potentially help a driver avoid a distracted-driving crash, for example, because of a call from a friend or the need to intervene in the kids' back-seat dispute. What it's not meant to do is allow the driver to stop driving altogether.

Auto-Pilot Crash in China

This month, Beijing had its first crash involving a semi-autonomous vehicle, when a Tesla Model S hit a parked car. The investigation revealed that the driver's hands weren't on the wheel at the time. The Tesla was in full-auto mode. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the crash.

Fatal Crash in Florida

This crash resulted in the driver's death. A tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of the Tesla and the car's sensors failed to recognize that the rig had pulled in front of it, owing to the lack of contrast between the white of the sky and the white of the rig.

Self-Driving Versus Assisted Driving

In both of these cases, it's probable that these crashes could have been avoided entirely if the human being in the vehicle had been paying attention rather than relying on Tesla's auto-pilot technology to get from Point A to Point B.

Assisted driving has been around for a while, and includes everything from cruise control to active park assist, but the Tesla S goes much further. Demonstrations of the vehicle presented in 2015 were made without the driver's hands on the wheel. Recent updates have given the cars the capabilities of auto steering, auto lane change, side collision warning, and auto parallel park, leaving some operators believing it's safe to nap in the backseat.

When the Tesla crash happened in China, the operator had been recording the incident with a dashboard camera. When questioned about having his hands off the wheel, something forbidden by Chinese law, he explained how the car was clearly marketed as self-driving, rather than assisted driving.

The technology is a big deal, but the way in which we as humans use it will require sound judgment. Tesla's advertised capabilities strongly tempt drivers to test them, which can lead to people taking risks behind the wheel they wouldn't otherwise take. The car's programming relies on an algorithm to determine the safest course of action if an emergency situation presents itself, and it may or may not pick the choice that is best.

Ultimately, autonomous vehicles may transform our day-to-day commute, not to mention the entire transportation industry, but for now, we must continue to keep our hands on the wheel and our eyes on the road.

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