Not so long ago, Elon Musk stood alone in defence of his Autopilot system as the world’s regulators lined up to take shots at him.
This week, as it cleared Tesla of any wrongdoing for the fatal accident that killed Joshua Brown, the NHTSA backed him to the hilt and basically conceded that Autopilot is the most effective active safety feature in recent automotive history.
The NHTSA didn’t just concede that the system was working and Brown simply wasn’t paying attention when his Model S ploughed into a semi-trailer that crossed his path. It also highlighted the fact that the introduction of the Autopilot system had slashed incidents by 40%, from one every 1.3 million miles to 0.8. It’s beyond significant.
Is this the most effective safety feature in recent times?
We’re struggling to think of one single safety feature in automotive history that has even come close to that kind of impact, for want of a better word. According to the NHTSA’s own figures, even anti-lock brakes have only accounted for a 6% reduction in crashes. Seat belts, meanwhile, save 15,000 lives a year on US roads and they’re fitted to every modern car.
So the governing body’s stark admission that Autopilot has reduced incidents by 40% is a big deal. In fact, it’s as close to an apology as Elon Musk is likely to get and a clear indicator that self-driving tech will get the fast track treatment from the regulators.
The Tesla boss is used to standing alone, by the way, it really isn’t anything new. But things got tense there for a while. Google, Volvo and Ford lined up to take potshots at an admittedly imperfect system, while America, Germany and China’s highways agencies started asking some pretty tough questions about its efficacy.
A spate of incidents didn’t help Tesla’s cause, including several minor accidents in the US, a Model S hitting a bus in Germany and a highway crash in China. Throughout, Elon Musk remained defiant.
“I feel quite strongly that as soon as you have data that says autonomy improves safety, we should bring it to market,” he said. “Even if it’s hypothetically one or two per cent safer. There are 1.2 million people dying from automotive accidents a year. One per cent is 12,000 lives saved.
“I think it would be morally wrong to withhold functionalities that improve safety I order to avoid criticisms or for fear of being involved in lawsuits.”
Musk had to defend a half-finished system
Rival manufacturers claimed that Autopilot was a no-man’s land that the average consumer simply couldn’t understand. If the car took the wheel then they would relax and that put the likes of Joshua Brown in harm’s way. They argued that the driver should have complete control or none at all and this halfway house was confusing and dangerous.
It was a logical argument and at one point things looked bleak. A very public and messy divorce from computer visions specialist MobilEye, which accused Tesla of risking people’s safety, did not help the cause.
At one stage, Musk even cracked under the pressure and basically accused the press of killing people with negative coverage of Autopilot. We called him out on it at the time and stand by it, but we’re equally impressed with the strength of his conviction and the undoubted progress his company has made.
LiDAR could still be an oversight
Tesla has worked tirelessly to iron out the faults with Autopilot and create a watertight system that still does not include LiDAR. Only time will tell if that’s the right solution as we’ll need to see rival solutions on the road and compare the incident statistics to make any meaningful conclusions.
This minor admission, though, is a massive step forward for Tesla and the self-driving movement as a whole.
The NHTSA findings aren’t a total pass for Tesla and the likes of California’s highways agency is still unhappy with the term Autopilot until the system actually does offer Level 4 autonomy. China’s governing body has the same issue and Tesla did remove the word from its website after deciding the translation was a little too literal.
Self-driving can save US lives
It is a very public vindication of Musk’s initial claims, though, and it shows that the attitude towards self-driving technology is changing fast. The early figures show that 27,875 people died in road accidents in the first nine months of 2016 and extrapolating out those figures suggests that more than 37,000 people died on the roads last year.
Slashing the number of incidents by 40% would have a massive effect on that sobering statistic and highlighting that one simple number is a clear statement of intent from the NHTSA. Barack Obama’s administration made great strides in terms of drawing up legislation for autonomous technology at a Federal level, but it will not hurt that Autopilot has received such a public vote of confidence as the new President is sworn in.
Autonomous cars haven’t just been cleared of a death, they’ve been pushed as one of the greatest advances in road safety that we’ve ever seen. We shouldn’t underestimate this moment, it’s going to have a big impact on the automotive world.