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Can Tesla Cure the 10th Leading Cause of Death in the World With Autonomous Vehicles?

Level 12

Are you excited for this post? I certainly know I am!

If this is the first article you're seeing of mine and you haven't read my prior article, "Why Businesses Don't Want Machine Learning or Artificial Intelligence," I advise you go back and read it as a primer for some of the things I'm about to share here. You might get “edumicated,” or you might laugh. Either way, welcome.

Well, officially hello returning readers. And welcome to those who found their way here due to the power of SEO and the media jumping all over any of the applicable buzzwords in here.

The future is now. We’re literally living in the future.


Image: Tesla/YouTube

That's the word from the press rags if you've seen the video of Tesla running on full autopilot and doing a complicated series of commute/drives cited in the article, "New Video Shows Tesla's Self-Driving Technology at Work." And you would be right. Indeed, the future IS now. Well, kind of. I mean it's already a few seconds from when I wrote the last few words, so I'm clearly traveling through time...

But technology and novelty like driving in traffic are a little more nuanced than this.

"But I want this technology right now. Look, it works. Stop your naysaying. You hate Tesla, blah blah blah, and so on."

That feels very much like Apple/Android fanboy or fan-hate when someone says anything negative about a thing they want/like/love. Nobody wants this more than me. (Well, except for the robots ready to kill us.)

Are There Really Self-Driving Teslas?

You might be surprised to know that Tesla has advanced significantly in the past few years. I know, imagine that—so much evolution! But just as we reward our robot overlords for stopping at a stop sign, they're only as good as the information we feed them.

We can put the mistakes of 2016 behind us with tragedies like this: "Tesla self-driving car fails to detect truck in a fatal crash."

Fortunately, Tesla continues to improve and get better and we'll be ready to be fully autonomous with self-driving vehicles roaming the roads without flaw or problem by 2019. (Swirly lines, and flashback to just a few months into 2019: Tesla didn't fix an Autopilot problem for three years, and now another person is dead.)

Is the Tesla Autopilot Safe?

Around this time, as I was continuing my study, research, and analysis of this and problems like it, I came across the findings of @greentheonly.

Screen Shot 2019-06-08 at 2.17.28 PM.png


And rightly so, we can call this an anomaly. This doesn't happen that frequently. It's not a big deal, except for when it does happen. Not only just when, but the fact that it does happen… whether it's seeing the undercarriage of a truck and interpreting it as an overpass and thus you can "safely pass" under it, shearing the top off of the cab, or seeing a truck to the side of you and interprets the space beneath the truck as a safe “lane” to change into.

But hey, that's Autopilot. We're not going to use that anymore until it's solid, refined, and safe. Then the AI and ML can't kill me. I'll be making all the decisions.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 8.16.12 PM.pngScreen Shot 2019-06-09 at 8.16.59 PM.png


If you recall in the last article, I mentioned the correlation of robots, Jamba Juice, and plasma pumps. Do you ever wonder why Boston Dynamics doesn't have robot police officers like the ED-209 working on major metro streets, providing additional support akin to RoboCop? (I mean, other than the fact that they're barely allowed to use machine learning and computer vision. But I digress.)

It’s because they're not ready yet. They don't have things fully baked. They need a better handle on the number of “faults” that can occur, not to mention liability.

Is Autonomous Driving Safe?

Does this mean, though, that we should stop where we are and no one should use any kind of autonomous driving function? (Well, partially...) The truth is, there are, on average, 1.35 million road traffic deaths each year. Yes, that figure is worldwide, but that figure is also insanely staggering. If we had autonomous vehicles, we could greatly diminish the number of accidents we experience on the roads, which could bring those death tolls down significantly.

And someday, we will get there. The vehicles’ intelligence is getting better every day. They make mistakes, sometimes not so bad—"Oh, I didn't detect a goose on the road as an object/living thing and ended up running it over." Or, "The road was damaged in an area, so we didn't detect that was a changing lane/crossing lane/fill-in-the-blank of something else."

The greatest strength of autonomous vehicles like Tesla, Waymo, and others is their telemetry. But their greatest weakness is their reliance solely on some points of telemetry.

Can Self-Driving Cars Ever Be Safe?

In present-day 2019, we rely on vehicles with eight cameras (hey, that's more eyes than us humans have!), some LIDAR data, and a wealth of knowledge of what we should do in conditions on roadways. Some complaints I've shared with various engineers of some of these firms are the limitations of these characteristics, mainly that the cameras are fixed, unlike our eyes.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 8.44.53 PM.png


So, if we should encounter a rockslide, a landslide, something falling from above (tree, plane, meteorite, car-sized piece of mountain, etc.) we'll be at the will of the vehicle and its ability to identify and detect this. This won't be that big of a deal, though. We'll encounter a few deaths here or there, it'll make the press, and they'll quietly cover it up or claim to fix it in the next bugfix released over the air to the vehicles (unlike the aforementioned problem that went unsolved for three years).

The second-biggest problem we face is, just like us, these vehicles are (for the most part) working in a vacuum. A good and proper future of self-driving autonomy will involve the vehicles communicating with each other, street lights, traffic cameras, environmental data, and telemetry from towers, roads, and other sensors. Rerouting traffic around issues will become commonplace. When an ambulance is rushing someone to a hospital, it can clear the roadways in favor of emergency vehicles. Imagine if buses ran on the roads efficiently. The same could be true of vehicles.

That's not a 2020 vision. It’s maybe a 2035 or 2050 vision in some cities. But this is a future that can be well seen ahead of us.

The Future of Tesla and Self-Driving Vehicles

It may seem like I’m critical of Tesla and their Autopilot programs. That’s because I am. I see them jumping before they crawl. I've seen deaths rack up, and I've seen many VERY close calls. It's all in the effort of better learning and training. But it's on the backs of consumers and on the graves of the end users who've been made to believe these vehicles are tomorrow's self-drivers. In reality, they’re in an Alpha state with the sheer limited amount of telemetry available.

Will I use Autopilot? Yeah, probably... and definitely in an effort of discovering and troubleshooting problems because I'm the kind of geek who likes to understand things. I don't have a Tesla yet, but that's only a matter of time.

So, I obviously cannot tell you what to do, with your space-age vehicle driving you fast forward into the future, but I will advise you to be cautious. I've had to turn ELDA off on my Chevy Bolt as it has been steering me into traffic, and that effectively has little to nothing I would consider "intelligent" in the grand scheme of things.

At the start of this article, I asked if you were as excited as I was. I'm not going to ask if you're as terrified as I am! I will ask you to be cautious. Cautious as a driver, cautious as a road-warrior. The future is close, so let's see you live to see it with the rest of us. Because I look forward to a day where the number 10 cause of death worldwide is a thing of the past.

Thank you and be safe out there!

Level 13

Thanks for the article. I've had experience of the automatic braking in my car kicking in when it detected a bush moving in the breeze at the side on the road. As has been said many times on this forum "trust but verify".

Level 14

I like enhanced safety sensors like the flashing/beeping in my wife's newer car triggered by proximity, but the whole autonomous thing really creeps me out. 

Level 16

The easiest way to prevent a lot of these crashes it to disable the ability for your cell phone to send/receive text it it detects you are moving more than 25 mph. It may be a bummer for the passengers but how many lives would be saved?

Level 13

Still pretty skeptical at this point.  I know people make mistakes too, but the problem with automation is that we start to rely on it almost instantly and that's what bites you.

Level 14

The real comparison is going to come when we get enough data to compare. Super easy to latch on to every single instance in such a relatively small pool of data. Not that every instance isn't tragic, but if we're going to compare relative safety and effectiveness we need billions of more miles driven by autonomous vehicles to be able to make a comparison.

The death rate (from what I'm seeing on Wikipedia - "List of self-driving car fatalities") for vehicle deaths is 1.18 per 100,000 miles driven (in the US). Autonomous vehicles don't have enough data to provide a direct meaningful comparison from what I can find, but the same wikipedia article points out that Google test cars have 5 million miles. Elon Musk tweeted on December 24th 2018 that there were over 1 billion miles driven and expects 2.3 billion miles by the same time 2019.

The wikipedia article lists 6 deaths, 5 of which are related to Tesla directly. Again, not a direct estimate, but that's 1 death every 200 million miles (5 in 1 billion miles). I don't think Autopilot is ever going to be 100% and while I think it's a great goal to have, I don't think it's reasonable if you compare to what we're OK with letting slide while humans are at the wheel.

I would absolutely ride in a car that doesn't have a perfect autopilot, but is 20 times safer than a human driver, let alone 2,000 times safer.

There are plenty of other questions to be had such as privacy/security concerns with cars sharing all of that data, abuse concerns with OTA updates (anyone see Terminator 3?), etc. Those are concerns I have, but the relatively safety of the technology isn't one of them.

**Note: I'm not performing any scientific analysis here, but providing some napkin math to demonstrate context, there may be mathematical errors, if you see anything feel free to point them out and I'll correct them. The point being is that comparing road miles driven (so far) the technology appears to be much safer than manual driving. Wider adoption is going to be necessary to gather the additional data to prove it.

Thank you for sharing this.  It's encouraging to see many different types of people have questions and are working to make this technology safer and more widely available.

Level 16

My Wife's SUV has all of the beepers and sensors and brakes, steers etc...

My state (Michigan) does and extremely poor job of fixing the roads so you are constantly swerving to avoid holes as well as the poor paint job on the side.

The automatic lane detection is basically useless since it beeps every couple of minutes because it has lost the paint trail or you had to move over to avoid something.

It is useless in the snow.

Level 12

One of my friends has a Roadster and I've been amazed by his dashcam showing incident after incident where the Telsa detects an imminent crash then takes before I notice unusual about the traffic.

Of ocurse this won't solve everything because most people aren't going to be able to afford the cars that have such cutting-edge technology for a long time.


Tesla driver checking in. Autopilot is amazing. I use it every day on a long commute to the office. And by use it, I mean I use it properly. No napping, no texting or messing with the phone just because the car is semi-autonomous. I'm always ready to take over if it can't navigate a particular maneuver. Meanwhile, I watch other drivers speed, tailgate, and cross lines all the time. Like any piece of technology, I'd certainly advise users to RTFM before engaging Autopilot.

Level 20

That one tesla that careened through a truck through the air and ended up in someone's yard and decapitated the guy probably wouldn't be considered good.

Level 12

this is pretty cool but I cant afford a Tesla only a dream car for me.

Level 14

Until they are as good as KITT I won't be getting one.

Level 11

Interesting topic, thanks for the article!  Still skeptical as well right now, as I'm still very cautious of my vehicles lane assist, but look forward to the future.

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