Ford CEO Mark Fields is cautiously optimistic about the future of the self-driving car industry, but his biggest fear for the future of autonomy might have already happened.
“The one fear I have is if anybody in this industry tries to jump the gun and maybe get a beta-test product out there that — God forbid — has an event, an accident or something, that’s going to cause people to pause,” Fields said at the Ford Mobility Summit, a panel discussion with two New York City Transportation officials.
“We’ve started to see some of the consequences of that recently,” moderator Janette Sadik-Khan, a former NYC DoT commissioner said right after Field’s statement. The subtext here, even though neither party referred to the event directly, is that semi-autonomous systems have already come under scrutiny after a deadly accident. In May of last year, Tesla owner Joshua Brown died after crashing into a tractor-trailer with his Autopilot system engaged. The National Highway Transportation Safety Board began a large, public investigation (which Tesla CEO Elon Musk thought was unnecessary), and eventually decided that Tesla’s systems were not at fault. The NHTSA’s final report found no safety flaws with Tesla’s design and closed the investigation, but noted that said flaws could still exist.
There’s a strong case to be made that rolling out autonomous software in a progressive system actively encourages drivers to test the limits of what their vehicles are capable of, and can mislead drivers into thinking assisted-driver systems are more competent than they are.
Ultimately, in Brown’s tragic case, most investigations have concluded that human negligence led to the accident, not a defect of systems, but what Fields is essentially saying is that the gray area between full driver control and full, hands-off autonomy is a minefield that could get people hurt or killed.
Most U.S. automakers who aren’t Tesla are taking a different strategy. We’ve know for a while that most of the major companies have autonomous systems that are just as good if not better than Tesla’s Autopilot, but the industry strategy Fields is advocating here is to keep all that tech under wraps until his company is sure that it’s safe. Fields mentioned at the Mobility Summit that Ford is barely researching level 3 autonomy, AKA “conditional autonomy,” where autonomous systems can steer and watch the road, but have to hand off control to a human driver when things get too complicated. The hand off is the most dangerous part of the process, and Ford and others have decided that they don’t want to put their toes in the autonomous waters until they have better systems for it.