To Autopilot or Not to Autopilot, that Is the Question

A recent accident involving a Tesla Model S with its Autopilot function engaged cost the life of the car’s driver. Since then, there have been calls to disable the function or as least rename it.


Red TeslaWe have cautioned many times in these posts about the advance of technology in automobiles. The advances are racing ahead faster than motorists – and perhaps manufacturers – can keep up. We even came to the conclusion that reaching true self drive mode would resolve these issues by taking the car out of the hands of drivers and relieving them of the responsibility.

But the technology has not yet matured and it remains incumbent on motorists to remain alert and engaged. This goes for backing up with the assist of a camera and proximity sensors, changing lanes while a blind spot monitor is active, and certainly will remain the case with an autopilot engaged.


Nissan will reportedly enlist countermeasures to ensure that drivers remain alert as it rolls out its ProPilot system. A torque sensor on the steering column will determine whether a hand is in contact with the steering wheel. Moving from warning lights through beepers to system disengagement, ProPilot will require driver input, period.

We applaud this from a company that has frankly been irresponsible in its advertising of other driver assist systems.

Tesla cites the fact that in order to engage its Autopilot function, the vehicle operator must pass through and accept a warning that the system requires the driver’s attention. It is essentially the equivalent of reading a software license agreement, which we all skim at best, and is not enough.

Pilot confusion with an engaged Autothrottle system was cited as the cause of the crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214 in San Francisco in July of 2013. Pilots with thousands of hours of experience and training still managed to fall on human error. Drivers will never be given training remotely equivalent to that of an airline pilot. Nissan has it right in this case.

To be completely fair, 100 people die on average every day on U.S. roadways and a single fatality after well over one million miles driven on Autopilot has everyone shouting to the rafters.

For the foreseeable future however, autonomous driving system designs need to keep the driver in his or her seat – unlike this early Tesla example from a year ago – as well as engaged in the driving process. It may defeat the spirit and purpose of autonomous operation from the driver’s perspective, but safety is the ultimate goal.

Perhaps as vehicles became more computerized, a second seat could be allowed the driving responsibility at times.


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