The National Traffic Safety Administration closed its investigation into the 2016 fatal crash of a Tesla Model S. In that crash, 40-year-old Joshua D. Brown was killed when the car’s cameras did not distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from the surrounding sunlit sky. Although the NTSA found no evidence of any safety defect, its ensuing commentary was quite interesting.
The agency’s criticism revolves around Tesla’s use of the term “Autopilot.” Words have meaning. Psychologically and experientially, I would guess that almost everyone thinks of the traditional experiences associated with that word. We mentally see the commercial pilot resting easy in the cockpit as he occasionally glances at the gauges and empty sky. The NTSA followed similar thinking.
Self-driving cars navigate within their environment via a constellation of digital cameras, lasers, and radar sensors. They normally do this extremely well. In principle, I think that is a wonderful and marvelous technological benefit. However, what we choose to call that technological system is important. Most people hear “autopilot” and instantly think “I can relax.”
Perhaps it is time to create a different term for these developing driver enhancements. Perhaps we need to think a lot more like public relations people than overly optimistic techno-geeks. Let’s not call it autopilot until it genuinely is.