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Autonomous tech: Is the honeymoon over?

Autonomous tech: Is the honeymoon over?

Has Tesla screwed the pooch, or are some recent—and high profile—accidents involving the brand’s self-driving vehicle technology a to-be-expected part of the learning curve? Certainly the latter is true, but just how much political damage has been done—and what it will mean to truck makers moving forward with autonomous vehicles—remains to be seen. Regardless, the honeymoon between over-promising vehicle manufacturers and safety-focused policymakers who’ve been surprisingly supportive is over.

The catalyst has been the May fatal collision between a Tesla Model S going fast with the car’s “Autopilot” engaged, and a tractor trailer that crossed a Florida highway in front of it. Apparently, neither the vehicle’s sensor-linked controls nor the driver made any attempt to stop.

The accident drew little attention at the time, but then the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) got involved in early July—and so did the automotive and tech media. An investigation into the details is underway, and the federal government’s top watchdog, the National Transportation Safety Board, also has announced it’s on the case. And so has the Securities and Exchange Commission, for that matter.

Safety advocates, including Consumer Reports, question whether the name Autopilot and the "marketing hype" have promoted "a dangerously premature assumption,” that the Model S is capable of truly driving on its own, and have called for Tesla to disable the hands-free operation feature until the system can further tested and developed.

But politicians don’t generally have the time to wait on fact-finders.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon last week vetoed a bill that contained a provision to establish a pilot program to test autonomous technology in trucks, specifically platooning—a system that already has accumulated tens of thousands of real-world highway test miles.

“Automated driving technology has advanced significantly within the last several years; however, the long-term safety and reliability of this technology remains unproven,” the governor wrote, citing the Tesla crash. “The risks associated with automated vehicles are even greater considering the size of long-haul trucks and the catastrophic damage that could occur if the technology failed. Using Missouri highways as a testing ground for long-haul trucks to deploy this unproven technology is simply a risk not worth taking at this time.”

Also late last week Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, wrote a letter to Elon Musk, chairman and CEO at Tesla Motors, seeking to determine whether the Autopilot performed as intended and review Tesla’s actions to educate consumers on the benefits and limitations of the technology. (Thune's committee has been supportive of such technology in the past, so this could be an invitation to Musk explain that everything's fine.)

Of course, Tesla’s tendency to point fingers at driver error is hypocritical; at best, it's the compromise the marketing and legal departments came up with. But maybe these sorts of accidents will put an end to the wink-and-nod marketing of “unofficial” uses of autonomous systems in vehicles. (Tesla is by no means the only car maker that has various “assist” technologies that are openly used for extended self driving.)

Still, Tesla continues to defend Autopilot.

“Given the fact that the 'better-than-human' threshold had been crossed and robustly validated internally, news of a statistical inevitability did not materially change any statements previously made about the Autopilot system, its capabilities, or net impact on roadway safety,” the company said in a statement to refute some mischaracterizations in the media.

We—the public and its elected representatives, vehicle makers, truckers—are facing a chicken-and-egg problem: How can we know that autonomous technology really is safer until we fully test it on the public highways? But how can we allow highway testing until we’ve proved that it’s safe?

Simple: Policymakers need to count to 10 and embrace facts, and technology providers have to be forthcoming with the testing data. And there will be accidents; the question is whether there will be fewer. And then, will customers pay for these systems? For consumers, other than bleeding-edge auto enthusiasts with a nice bank balance, prices will likely have to come down—and they will, over time.

For truckers, however, safety pays. Autonomous vehicle technology is certainly an area in which commercial vehicle buyers can—and should—take the lead.

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