Kempner: What we demand of self-driving cars

Credit: Laura Skelding

Credit: Laura Skelding

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Joshua Brown died letting his Tesla do the driving for him. Just a few days earlier I was test driving the same self-driving system in another Tesla for a column I wrote on the experience.

Both of us were playing a game of chicken with technology, maybe not fully appreciating the gamble we were taking.

A lot of people are unnerved by the idea of vehicles on autopilot. Driving is a complex, messy exercise. It takes mountains of trust – or self-delusion – to believe a machine will get it right and not kill us. The same could have been said back in the early days of planes or regular cars.

We have fresh soul searching and cold analysis to do now. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which recently announced Brown’s accident, is investigating Tesla’s Autopilot system. Tesla said the death is the first in more than 130 million miles of driving with the activated Autopilot.

The system of sensors, cameras and software allows Tesla's all-electric vehicles to steer, brake and accelerate as needed.

In Brown’s case, his Tesla didn’t automatically brake for a tractor trailer because it didn’t pick up the trailer’s white side against a brightly lit sky, according to Tesla and the government.

Of course, there are lots of white trucks on highways and lots of days when the sun lights the sky.

We have less tolerance for machines that kill us than we do when our fellow, foolish human drivers do the same. To err is human. To be perfect is what we demand of machines designed to act like humans.

I have to believe that technology can solve a white-truck/sunlight problem. I hope it also can handle the host of other variables and nuances involved in driving.

There are no guarantees, though. Our tech inventors are not flawless and neither are we.

When it comes to testing the bounds of technology’s surging role in our lives, we are perennially the guinea pigs. Particularly in the case of Tesla, which rolled out tweaks as if it was updating software on our smartphones. As Tesla told me (and other drivers), when using the Autopilot mode: Keep your hands on the wheel and stay vigilant.

READ — Self-driving Tesla takes me for 70-mph spin on Ga. 400