Tesla Autopilot Update Foreshadows Slower American Roads – No Speeding With Autonomous Vehicles

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Autonomous vehicle advocates forgot to tell you one thing: You’re going to drive slower.

This past May at a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technolgy in Cambridge Mass., BestRide staff were on hand when Dr. Gill Pratt, the head of Toyota’s automation team, dropped a bomb on the group.

In a Q&A session, I had asked a question of Dr. Pratt about how automation might work and he opted to instead ask a question of our group. He asked us if we thought automakers would allow for autonomous cars to speed.

The room got quiet for a bit, and it became clear to the journalists and industry insiders in the room that we had just heard from the leading expert in America on automation that once cars start driving themselves they are not going to break speed limits.

This past week, Tesla Motors announced an update to its Autopilot system that restricts Tesla vehicles to the speed limit in many situations. In a six-month span, the prediction we heard at MIT from a Toyota team member working on future system designs was validated by Tesla in its production vehicles.

Tesla is particularly sensitive to the issue of speeding while the car is in control. The NTSB issued a report this past July that the Tesla Model S being “driven” by Joshua Brown, but operating in Autopilot mode, was speeding when it T-boned a tractor trailer that was making a turn across the road at a legal intersection.

Mr. Brown was no ordinary driver. He was well aware of the Tesla Autopilot’s strengths and weaknesses having been an advocate for the technology. Mr. Brown was no ordinary American either:  According to the New York Times, Mr. Brown had studied physics and computer science before joining the Navy and serving as a Navy SEAL.

The accident Brown was involved in was not a case of a person new to a Tesla who didn’t understand how it operated. The accident also debunked the idea that a driver will use his or her quick reflexes to take back control of a car in a dangerous situation. If a Navy SEAL with a background in technology can’t take back control of a car being driven in autopilot when danger presents itself, how many “typical” drivers will be able to?

Toyota’s future automation plan is the exact opposite of Tesla’s. Rather than the car throwing control back to the “driver” when it can’t handle a situation, Toyota’s technology team envisions autopilot helping a driver who is in control when the driver becomes overwhelmed, or in situations when the car can see what we cannot, like a pedestrian in a crosswalk around a blind corner.

Toyota’s catchphrase for this philosophy is Guardian Angel. Interestingly, Toyota’s philosophy stems from a mandate from its president, Akio Toyoda, that cars remain fun to drive after automation becomes part of the culture. Tesla says its philosophy on automation is “…full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” And substantially slower.

Tesla is just the first company to begin restricting the speeds of a vehicle to the speed limit. As automated vehicle technology continues to spread throughout the U.S. passenger vehicle fleet expect more steps in this direction. Your automotive world is about to slow down.

Image of Crashed Tesla courtesy of the Florida Highway Patrol and NTSB. Image of Tesla Autopilot in action courtesy of Tesla Motors Public page. Image of Gill Pratt courtesy of NEMPA.

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John Goreham

John Goreham