Elon Musk wants you to sit back and enjoy your ride--without a driver. He made that clear in yesterday's announcement, when he revealed that beginning in 2017, all new Tesla vehicles will be capable of being fully autonomous, including the more affordable new Model 3.
Currently, Tesla's Autopilot mode isn't quite autonomous. The feature is only meant to assist in highway driving, with the driver keeping his or her hand on the wheel and foot on the break at all times. (The German government has even requested the company stop calling the feature "Autopilot," saying it's misleading.)
The new Autopilot, says Musk, will eliminate the need for human interference. All future Tesla cars will have eight cameras, high-power sensors and radar, and be capable of performing 12 trillion operations per second. Next year, the company plans to send a vehicle from Los Angeles to New York, 2,800 miles across the country, without a human inside.
As appealing as it sounds, consumers may not be so quick to embrace the new concept. Proving that something works and getting appropriate regulations are in one league, but convincing the world that this is something they want is an entirely different one.
Herman Herman, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center, has developed self-driving cars for a variety of purposes. A glitch in self-driving software could be disastrous, he recently told MIT Tech Review. The magnitude of mistake that would cause your browser to close while you're surfing the web could, for instance, if applied to a vehicle's software, cause your car to make a left turn across a busy highway. "It just takes one erroneous command to the steering wheel," said Herman.
There are plenty of other fears, and they're all justified: What if the vehicle swerves dangerously just to avoid a piece of trash? What if the sensors become caked with dirt? What if someone hacks the system and turns your vehicle into a high-speed weapon?
Of course, these are all things Musk and his team of engineers are actively working to improve. What they can't control, however, is how people will respond to their invention.
Cars using Tesla's Autopilot feature have logged over 200 million miles. So far, there's been one death reported. (A Florida man's car drove into the side of a tractor trailer that it didn't detect due to glare.) One death per 200 million miles driven is a relatively small number--and about twice as safe as in cars fully commandeered by humans. But that's not enough. With new technology comes an inherent fear of the unknown.
When airbags were first introduced, they significantly improved driver and passenger safety, as well as the likelihood of survival in a crash. Yet an uneasiness about airbags permeated the early 1990s, when they caused a small but tragic number of avoidable deaths. Many have been quick to argue that these types of anxieties have been exaggerated, largely to the media. At last night's announcement, Musk even went so far as to say that if you write an article "dissuading people from using autonomous vehicles, you're killing people."
Frankly, though, an airbag that does its job isn't much of a story, and neither is a self-driving car that delivers its passenger without incident. Any technology that's being newly introduced will be under extra scrutiny, from media and consumers alike, and rightfully so.
Here's what it boils down to: With autonomous driving, that extra scrutiny won't be offset by a mere doubling of passenger safety. There will always be a handful of early adopters giddy to use new technology. (A quick YouTube search will lead you to videos of passengers unwisely playing cards or eating snacks in their Teslas while the car pleasantly cruises along on its own.) But if the goal is mass adoption, the benefits must outweigh the potential dangers--by a massive amount. When self-driving cars are 10 times as safe, which Musk says is Tesla's target, then you might see fleets of cars cruising around cities while their drivers lounge on the back seat. That goes for Tesla as well as Uber, Google, and the automakers working on similar technology.
It will surely happen. As Musk said when he unveiled his plans to get to Mars, technology doesn't improve automatically; it needs to be researched, tested, and continuously improved by teams of engineers. That said, 2017 will be a big year for Musk, but it won't be the year drivers are scrambling to get a ride in a driverless car.