US Senate Wades Into The Tesla Autopilot Debate

The United States Senate, the deliberative body that refuses to act to prevent people on various “no fly” lists from purchasing assault weapons, that refuses to fill a vacant seat on the US Supreme Court because the nomination was made by a black president, that refuses to support clean air and clean water, that wants to close all national parks and turn them over for development by private interests, that is populated with people who bring snowballs onto the floor of the Senate to prove climate change is a hoax, yes, that Senate has been roused from its torpor to wade into the issue of whether the Tesla Autopilot system is safe.

Tesla factory in Fremont

Not content with the fact that the two government agencies charged with maintaining road safety, the National Highway Transportation Safely Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, have both opened investigations into the fatal accident that killed Joshua Brown in May, the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, has sent a letter to Elon Musk asking him to appear and explain to the distinguished members of that body why Autopilot is not dangerous.

Thune’s letter says the committee is  particularly interested in “the company’s efforts to ensure the Autopilot technology was deployed safely in this instance,” as well as “Tesla’s work to educate customers on the use, benefits, and limitations of the technology.” And people say this is a “do nothing” Congress. Piffle! Here is proof that US Senate is hard at work protecting the American people. Musk has until July 29 to respond.

Thune continues, “Technological advancements have the potential to reduce [traffic accidents] significantly,” he writes. “Therefore, it is essential to use lessons learned from this incident to improve safety technologies, ensure they perform as advertised, and make certain that consumers are properly educated about their use.” He calls for more research on “the interactions between the operator and vehicle at different levels of autonomy to ensure consumers are able to respond to the technology appropriately.”

Gee, Senator, do you think it’s possible that Musk and Tesla engineers might be doing precisely that?

Meanwhile, the jackals are circling. Many have offered the opinion that the name Autopilot connotes that the system can do more than it is actually capable of. Here’s a statement by a lawyer who makes his living suing auto manufacturers. “The moment I saw Tesla calling it Autopilot, I thought it was a bad move,’’ says attorney Lynn Shumway. “Just by the name, aren’t you telling people not to pay attention?’’

Other lawyers draw analogies between making Autopilot available to drivers and building a swimming pool without a fence. “There’s a concept in the legal profession called an attractive nuisance,” said Tab Turner, another lawyer specializing in auto defect cases. “These devices are much that way right now. They’re all trying to sell them as a wave of the future, but putting in fine print, ‘Don’t do anything but monitor it.’ It’s a dangerous concept.”

Musk insists the company tells people they must remain vigilant and in the control of their vehicles at all times. Whenever Autopilot is activated, the driver is required to acknowledge a statement to that effect on the car’s touchscreen. If there is an issue, it appears to center on those situations when Autopilot decides to deactivate itself. That can happen if it is unable to detect a hand on the steering wheel or if the driver touches either the brake pedal or accelerator. Some drivers have reportedly been surprised to find the system was no longer active, usually after a crash that could have been prevented if they were paying proper attention to driving.

For now, we can take comfort in the fact that the US Senate is on the case, sniffing out important issues that are of concern to voters. Or this is John Thune grandstanding, trying to take advantage of a media maelstrom to convince the folks back home that he is working hard to protect their interests. You decide.

Musk would do well to remember what happened to Audi many years ago when the Audi 5000 was involved in several sudden unintended acceleration claims. The press started calling the 5000 a “death car”. Audi sales plummeted worldwide and the company came close to going out of business.

A lot of this current controversy could be defused if Tesla simply elected to change the name from Autopilot to something less suggestive. Would Elon Musk consider such a thing? Absolutely not. His entire persona is built on never deviating from his chosen course. It’s his greatest strength, but could also be his greatest weakness.

There’s blood in the water and the sharks are starting to circle. The US Congress could be a daunting challenge. Musk and company may need to dial back their normally combative attitude if they want to keep this situation from spiraling out of control.

Source: The Verge, Bloomberg


Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.