Keep an Eye on the Automatic Cars: Computers are not Good Drivers

Since Otis revealed the first fully automatic, multi-car elevator system in 1948, automation has been creeping silently, or not so silently, into our everyday lives. Now, automation appears in almost everything from the washing machine that can determine just how much water to use every cycle to the computers that access TPS classes on GP7 every morning. However, there remains one part of our lives that automation has not yet conquered, and will not conquer any time soon: driving. 

The recent years have seen a myriad of innovations in automation, including blind spot sensors, lane keeping, and GPS systems. Various automakers have combined and refined these systems to autonomously operate a car under stable conditions, taking new cars to automation level 2.

Prominent examples include Tesla’s “Autopilot,” Google’s “Waymo,” and Cadillac’s “Super Cruise,” which all represent significant progress into the second and third levels of automation. However, the current state of engineering and automation simply cannot provide a completely driverless car.

This becomes especially apparent when considering the fundamental design of an automatic driving system, such as the Cadillac Super Cruise. Super Cruise is designed to take control of the car under stable highway conditions, using the location of the lane lines and the car in front of it. This presents a few problems, which Ezra Dyer noted in his test drive in a new Cadillac Escalade (Dyer). Most obviously, Super Cruise fails in poor road conditions. Fortunately, it is able to recognize the problem and will deactivate at any signs of trouble, but for a driverless future, this means that either the cars or the roads will have to improve.

The less obvious but possibly more significant problem is the computer’s need to follow the car in front of it. This essentially means that Super Cruise will brake when the car ahead brakes and speed up when the car in front accelerates. The driver of the car ahead is unwittingly driving two cars. As Ezra Dyer puts it, “your system is only as good as the driver ahead of you.” (Dyer) If the entire world were full of automatic cars, This might be fine, since all cars will behave the same way. But in a world where everyone drives differently, this can make for an uncomfortable ride.

Safety, not comfort, however, is the main concern for self-driving cars, and it is not certain that they can reliably perform better than humans. In 2016, a Tesla driving in “Autopilot” mode crashed full-speed into a truck trailer that was crossing the highway. The car apparently had plenty of time to avoid a collision but in this unusual situation did nothing and smashed right into an enormous trailer. Given frequent software updates, Autopilot has improved significantly since then, but another crash into an overturned truck in 2020 may question how much smarter it actually is now.

Both crashes highlight a fundamental problem with using machines to drive: computers do not learn like humans and therefore cannot be expected to perform properly in situations outside their programming. Apparently, in both situations, the Tesla Autopilot failed to recognize an obstacle that a human could easily avoid.


Perhaps the future of driving is automated. Society has been progressing in that direction for the past 100 years. But autonomous cars still have a long way to go before they will outperform humans.






Works Cited:

Bard, Wes. “Why Did Tesla Autopilot Crash into an Overturned Truck?” Www.youtube.com, 15 June 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVgkWii5JdM. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021.

Dyer, Ezra. “Super Cruise’s Biggest Problem Is Us.” Car and Driver, 17 Apr. 2021, www.caranddriver.com/features/columns/a36118292/super-cruises-biggest-problem-is-us/. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021.

Ford Motor Company. “A Brief History of Autonomous Vehicle Technology.” WIRED, WIRED: WIRED, 31 Mar. 2016, www.wired.com/brandlab/2016/03/a-brief-history-of-autonomous-vehicle-technology/.

Yadron, Danny, and Dan Tynan. “Tesla Driver Dies in First Fatal Crash While Using Autopilot Mode.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 30 June 2016, www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/30/tesla-autopilot-death-self-driving-car-elon-musk.

One Comment

  1. Great article! I learned a lot! (I loved the infographic, did you make it?)