If you did not know, a Tesla Model X driver wants others to see the benefits of Tesla’s Autopilot to pass the time in bumper-to-bumper traffic while he plays Pokemon Go.
The video taken on one of the most traveled highways in the U.S. – I-95 northbound nearing Washington, D.C. – comes two-and-a-half months after a man in Florida died while reports say he may have been watching a Harry Potter DVD when his Tesla careened into a truck.
Tesla’s Autopilot is essentially a level two semi-autonomous system on a federally defined scale of 0-4. The automaker has adamantly said users assume all risk, and must agree to terms and conditions, which include keeping hands on the steering wheel.
“I should add a note here to explain why Tesla is deploying partial autonomy now, rather than waiting until some point in the future,” wrote Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a blog post last week. “The most important reason is that, when used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.”
According to the Model X driver, incorrect use is no problem however, as he shares a “wonderful” benefit to play the popular game without unwanted distractions – including such distractions as keeping hands on the wheel, or attention fully on the road.
“For those of you who are not too familiar with some of the dynamics in Autopilot, one of the things I’ve noticed, I’m not sure exactly what the cutoff is, but I believe under 45 or 40 mph – as long as there’s a good amount of surroundings and clear lane markers as you can see here – it will never ask you to kind of, remind you to put your hands back on the steering wheel,” said Gary Zhou as he traveled from North Carolina toward Pennsylvania. “So, in essence Autopilot works pretty much 100-percent fully autonomous in bumper to bumper traffic, minus of course lane changes and things like that, and again, it’s fantastic for catching Pokémon on the Go.” (laughs)
Tesla has also updated the system to make electronic warnings more persistent so as to prevent people from taking their hands off the wheel.
Updates may however be refused. Unstated is whether the driver in the video had refused any updates, but he does not indicate as much as he implies others may try “Pokemon on the go” also.
Meanwhile, Autopilot is being investigated by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the court of public opinion has been all over the map.
Obviously Tesla does not endorse such behavior, but those concerned with new ethical precedents have observed human nature is what it is. One of these is Consumer Reports, which took a stand saying Autopilot should be renamed, expectations re-set, and the system revised so it is not possible to pretend it is a full driverless technology.
Musk has in so many words countered Consumer Reports’ paternal recommendations, and denied an objected-to term, “beta,” means it is not ready for use.
“This is not beta software in any normal sense of the word. Every release goes through extensive internal validation before it reaches any customers,” wrote Musk in his blog. “It is called beta in order to decrease complacency and indicate that it will continue to improve (Autopilot is always off by default). Once we get to the point where Autopilot is approximately 10 times safer than the US vehicle average, the beta label will be removed.”
But the discussion continues. On a related note, U.S. transportation authorities have since 2009 declared an “epidemic” of distracted driving, using a term normally associated with illness as though being not careful might be a disease that could infect drivers.
The federal concern has been over wide-spread texting and cellphone use behind the wheel, not to mention other activities that can divert attention.
However a federal authority has more-recently implied potential benefits for Autopilot outweigh concerns. Last week the administrator for NHTSA, Mark Rosekind, suggested systems like Autopilot stand to save lives, and noted in 2015 U.S. traffic fatalities rose 8 percent to 35,200 deaths.
“If we wait for perfect, we’ll be waiting for a very, very long time,” said Rosekind. “How many lives might we be losing while we wait? Ones that could otherwise be saved by a thoughtful but determined approach to bring lifesaving technologies to the road.”
Meanwhile, people will be people. Risk takers will be risk takers. Officially, while one person may make a public announcement that taking one’s hands off the wheel and playing Pokemon Go is a great pastime, Tesla says kids should not try this at home – or on any public road.