I’m thrilled to introduce Steve Kuciemba as my first guest blogger! Steve Kuciemba is the National Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Practice Leader for WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff. With nearly 30 years of experience under his belt, Steve has a unique background having previously worked for an automobile manufacturer, a state department of transportation, and a national non-profit industry association.
It was recently revealed that the driver of a Tesla Model S was killed while his car was engaged in the “autopilot” mode – a semi-self driving feature that allows the vehicle to take over certain aspects of the driving task. The facts of the case are still under investigation, but a number of details have been revealed: (1) a tractor-trailer coming in the opposite direction made a left turn in front of the Tesla, (2) the front-facing camera and radar failed to distinguish the threat because of bright sun and a solid white trailer, and (3) the driver of the Tesla was allegedly not paying attention and failed to notice the hazard ahead. It was a tragic accident and investigators are currently sorting through conflicting witness reports, whether or not the conditions can be repeated in a test condition, and most importantly – why did the driver of the truck make a sudden turn in front of the path of the oncoming Tesla in the first place.
Some of the media jumped all over automated self-driving technology – despite the fact that this Autopilot feature in the Tesla Model S was never intended to be a fully self-driving capacity where the driver can take their attention away from the driving task. The automaker has provided numerous warnings about drivers remaining focused, keeping hands on the wheel, and keeping feet nearby the pedals. This was, unfortunately, an early glimpse at the possibilities that technology can offer – and the tragic dangers of misusing or misunderstanding the capabilities and limitations that accompany it.
This is also a case where connected vehicle technology – V2V and V2I – could have provided the additional data that would have enabled the vehicle to alert the driver to an impending collision, or could have taken corrective action such as engaging emergency braking capacity. Even though the onboard cameras and sensors missed the conflict, with connectivity the vehicles would have known of each other’s positions and provided a back-up; and if nothing else a warning that something was amiss. Had the truck and car both been outfitted with connected vehicle technology, the truck driver might not have made the dangerous turn in the first place – either by way of in-vehicle warning or by way of automatic override of the driving task. Accident conditions prevented. It is my opinion that automation without connectivity is a risk we don’t have to live with – especially since the industry is making great progress. Protect the spectrum, promote the installation of vehicle and roadside technology, and break down policy barriers to CV implementation. The safety benefit is worth it, don’t you think?