About a week ago I finally met the author that inspired my thesis research topic in person. It wasn't the first time we talked — I'd skyped with him a while ago — but between then and now, I've done a lot of work that builds on his. So I made an appointment to meet and took a train to his university last week. Like many interesting professors, he alternates between enthralling mini-lectures and stern-faced inquiries. Near the end, I asked him what his motivation was behind all this research of his. He went on for a few minutes about everything that's wrong with our current models and how a fundamental rethinking of our tools was well due.
"In other words, a blunt tool in the right direction is better than a sophisticated tool askew?"
A few days later I wondered if that was also the case with Tesla's Autopilot. As part of a visit to my uni's automated driving research lab, a bunch of us got to test drive a few Teslas with a rep explaining its features. Despite knowing almost as much as the rep about the car, I haven't driven one before.
As far as cars go, it's not a bad sedan. But it's also not the top-notch quality I hear people raving about. The interior especially felt kinda cheap for such an expensive car. That touch screen is ginormous, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it's just an upsized $300 Android tablet. I don't know if this is the default, but when the car knows a speed camera is coming up it makes a loud, jarring WEEOOWEEOO sound that I would expect from a kids toy, not a high end car. It's downright insulting when you look at the price tags on these things.
It drives okay, although it is much wider and heavier than you might expect. After testing its acceleration on an office park (not bad!) we drove to a 70 kph road to test the Autopilot. (That's 45mph in Freedom Units, fyi.) When I was behind the wheel it seemed to do a pretty good job of driving. It's a bit weird at first, but I got used to it very quickly - in seconds, not in minutes. In case you didn't know, the dashboard shows you not just your car but also shows other cars and line markings while driving. So in addition to paying attention to road conditions and to what the car is doing itself, you can check the dashboard to be reassured that yes, it's seeing that Ford one lane over. It handled a traffic light intersection without a hitch, coming to a full halt behind another car and continuing to drive 70 without any input from me. At one point the road was still wet, so a puddle made the car wobble a bit. But the general impression that I and many others got, was that it can already drive itself.
Changing to the rear passenger seat I could pay more attention to what the dashboard showed. I was surprised at how often it doesn't recognize lane markings. It also showed curbs as obstacles a few dozen times. When you're driving, you can't pay that much attention to the dashboard because it really is a more difficult and attention-demanding driving experience. The two other that got to drive it noticeably struggled with it. One guy just got his license. The other can't be more than ten years from retiring. Neither of them knew anything about how the system worked, and both managed to override it multiple times in the ten minutes they each drove it.
I already felt conflicted by Tesla's approach to automated driving, and that feeling is not reduced one bit. I mean, it is very cool that it can steer itself under the right conditions. It represents a future that I would drag to the present if I could.
But on the other hand I'm now more convinced that it is a terrible idea to unleash this the general public without proper instruction. It's distracting or confusing at best, but dangerous at worst. The only way to drive this responsibly is to know how it works and know when it doesn't. You can't do that without at least some sort of training. If it were up to me, I'd make it a requirement to get an annotation on your drivers license before you can drive something like this on the road. In my opinion, it's a blunt gimmick by a company perpetually in crunch time.