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TECHNOLOGY

Before Tesla Can Win the Self-Driving Race, It Has Another Problem to Solve: Fear

There’s a serious experience problem going on here.

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BY Tom Popomaronis - 06 Oct 2018

Before Tesla Can Win the Self-Driving Race, It Has Another Problem to Solve: Fear

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

There was an air of unparalleled excitement as I slid into the cabin of a generous friend's newly delivered Model 3 (thanks, Brad). I both read and write about Tesla's CEO Elon Musk on a regular basis, but this was my first experience behind the wheel of one of his cars. Translation: anticipation was off the charts.

Sitting in the driver's seat for the first time was an incredible experience--one that I've never had with any car (probably because I drive a 2010 Kia--the year before they started getting cool again, mind you). I was instantly struck by the incredible design but ultimately realized:

Tesla has an experience problem--and a big one.

Alright, so when we got on the road and it was time to engage AutoPilot, though, my trust issues began to surface.

"Relax," my brain tried to tell me, "this car is way smarter than you are". After a brief hesitation, Brad assured and reassured what I needed to do to effectively operate, so I took a deep breath, realized that I already trusted technology with my work, my money, and my privacy (sometimes)--trusting it with my life was just the next logical step. Tesla...take the wheel.

I'll also preface this by firmly stating that it's the driver's responsibility to maintain control of the vehicle at all times. My first career was in auto-insurance--so I know a thing or two about liability, a driver's duty, and the rules of the road (also guilty of being a terrible backseat driver). I did not educate myself and read all the 'fine print' of the do's and don'ts of AutoPilot, but wanted to give it a spin, with the clear assumption of assuming all risks associated.

Once AutoPilot was engaged, we started off on easy roads--which allowed me to test on low-traffic roads and the goal of giving me some comfort as a driver (keyword: goal).

That said, let me go ahead and spoil it for you: I was not happy with what happened next.

AutoPilot felt fine at first, but in 2 instances with no oncoming traffic, would confusingly veer and cross over the double line instead of taking an expected, wider turn. Brad suggested that with oncoming traffic, that wouldn't have happened, but either way, it left me feeling utterly uncomfortable. Not a good start.

Then, the turn happened.

We then decided to test the limits and go around a turn that I was fairly certain could be an issue. The suggested speed limit was 20 mph so I went down to 18 mph. The turn was ridiculously tight:

Old National Pike Road in New Market, Maryland

We came up on the turn and the Model 3 didn't even try to turn. It simply beeped to indicate AutoPilot was no longer on, requiring an immediate, manual takeover. I quickly reacted, took control, and turned to prevent going straight into a tree. Fear consumed me.

So let's break this down -- I'm 99.999% certain that under no circumstance is AutoPilot expected to work around a tight turn, but here's the issue:

Not everyone who buys a Tesla knows that. Yes, it's the duty and liability of the driver to know this, but it's like blindly reading the Privacy Policy for every service/site you sign up--you just do it.

The crippling impact of fear and a negative experience

If design inspires trust, where does Tesla fall short with trust in the experience? Look, I'm such a strong advocate for, one day, achieving a critical mass mainstream of autonomous vehicles--the potential benefits are incredible. However, if a driver has a negative experience today with the perception of what they know a Tesla is capable of, it could forever turn them off (not to mention their friends & family)--and that's a critical rate limiter for the autonomous quest.

Even if it was clearly known that it's the driver's full liability and they cause a fatal collision, I can't imagine that they would ever trust an autonomous vehicle again or be comfortable driving in one, which can create exponential ripple effects for the hope of market saturation.

Given all favorable press I'd seen, I was disappointed--and very discomfited. Naturally, I went to Google for some answers. It turned out I wasn't alone in my reservations at all. What Tesla is offering with its current self-driving package isn't so much a car that can drive itself as it is a car that lets you get away with paying slightly less attention than a normal vehicle. Yet, that's not really what the name 'AutoPilot' conveys. And while my impression is that Tesla has a long way to go in order to live up to the self-driving hype, some people have different opinions.

The experience made me realize that where unbelievable strides are being taken, we aren't even close to what compares to the strength and preference of human intuition on the road and how fear could prevent the entire industry from scaling.

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