On the morning of Oct. 8, Tesla Model S owners woke up to find what was essentially a brand-new car sitting in their driveways. 

Sure, all the parts were the same, but for customers who paid the $2,500 activation charge, it was like Santa Musk broke into their garages, tinkered under the hood and delivered the gift of autonomous driving.

As Google continues to refine and test its self-driving car, rumors persist about Apple’s entry into the automotive industry and traditional automakers develop their own systems, Tesla has leaped ahead of everyone by delivering an early version of autonomous driving that consumers can use right now. Autopilot mode is still limited. It won’t work properly if lane markings are faded and can’t react to traffic signals or navigate a turn at an intersection, but it should prove self-sufficient when it comes to highway driving.

With a hassle-free over-the-air software update, Tesla has pushed the conversation about autonomous driving ahead. The public’s concerns over automobile hacking will only become more pronounced when the vehicles are driving themselves. Government regulators and legislators are still far behind the technology, which could stymie its mainstream adoption. But even as questions remain, the benefits are obvious. Self-driving cars could extend the life of our existing infrastructure and eliminate the need for new highways, as cars that can communicate with each other could be packed tightly onto roads without worrying about delayed reaction times or aggressive drivers trying to swerve across three lanes before an exit.

The morning commute is bound to be more pleasant. The efficiency and predictability of the future autonomous car could someday not only render driver’s licenses obsolete, but illegal. For most of us, this will be a welcome change. Driving can be a stressful experience and we’ve all had a friend whose driving style made us grip the armrest and mouth a silent prayer. When computers can keep traffic moving smoothly, why run the risk of letting human error muck it up?

But there’s also a dark side to taking our wheels away. Even the precision of computer systems cannot account for every variable or changing condition on the road. Accidents will decline, but fatalities will remain a possibility no matter how close to perfect autonomous systems get. How will self-driving cars behave during an impending collision, and whose interests will they obey? Will my car sacrifice me if it means saving someone else’s life – and lowering my insurance company’s payout?

The technology is still a few years away from enabling the driverless future, but with Tesla making rudimentary autopilot available in 60,000 vehicles, the true public policy debate begins now.

 

Tim O’Connor

MotorWorld chief editor
Tim.O’ This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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