Self-Driving Car Update

By Cody Newbold

Google announced in December that it would be breaking off its driverless car division into a new company called Waymo.  Waymo, which stands for “a new way forward in mobility,” is “not a car company,” according to the CEO, John Krafcik.  “There’s been some confusion on that point,” he commented, “We’re not in the business of making better cars, we’re in the business of making better drivers.” 

Google’s announcement is no surprise, given general public fear of self-driving cars.  That apprehension seemed vindicated when in May, a Tesla driver was killed while using a beta version of Tesla’s Autopilot mode.  Joshua Brown’s Tesla struck and went under a tractor-trailer crossing a road in front of him.  The sensors on the car didn’t detect the truck’s trailer because it was white against a bright white sky.  

The truck driver alleged that Brown was watching a Harry Potter movie at the time of the accident.  Reports from Tesla show that Brown had instructed the car to operate over the speed limit, and he was going 74 mph in a 65 mph speed zone.  According to Tesla, the Autopilot feature is not meant to be used without human hands on the wheel.           

Known as the first self-driving car fatality, this wreck was written about in a New York Times piece, which stated, “The race by automakers and technology firms to develop self-driving cars has been fueled by the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers.  But that view is now in question after the revelation on Thursday that the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan was killed in an accident when the car was in self-driving mode.”  

Consumer Watchdog asked Tesla to recall the Autopilot feature following the crash of a Tesla car in Germany, reported The Register.  The accident did not appear to have been caused by the Autopilot feature.  

The Register also reported in December that Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority believes the name Autopilot is misleading to users.  Tesla responded, stating, “98 percent of customers surveyed said they understand that when using Autopilot, the driver is expected to maintain control of the vehicle at all times.”  

“In the U.S., about 33,000 people are killed in automobile accidents every year,” reported The Guardian in the wake of the Tesla accident.  “That’s 90 a day on average.  So on May 7, about 89 other people as well as Joshua Brown were killed in car crashes.  But we heard nothing about those 89 personal and family tragedies:  The only death that most people in the U.S. heard about was Mr. Brown’s.”  

Companies developing self-driving car technology are finding public preconception a challenging issue.  Although driverless cars have less accidents than human drivers, there is still much fear surrounding the potential of a car wrecking itself.  

What seems to be lacking is an understanding of the technology.  Although the technology for a completely autonomous vehicle is not ready yet, the options for technological intervention on the road are a huge benefit when used properly.  Having extra sensors on a car could greatly decrease the number of fatalities related to automobiles.  

Perhaps Google is correct in revamping their driverless car company, with the goal of “making better drivers.”  It is perhaps a better way for us all to view autonomous car technology.

About Cody Newbold

Cody Newbold holds a Bachelor of Science in software engineering from Middle Tennessee State University and serves as Director of Digital Innovation for Validity Publishing.

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