The technology of a Tesla is maybe progressing faster and providing more temptation than the driving population at large is prepared for.
There's a not-so-secret reason why automobile technology progresses at a snail's pace. It's not that it's inherently difficult. Cars are cars, technology is technology, and engineering is engineering. It's certainly not the cost — if you're willing to pay for it, someone can (and will, and probably already has) build it.
No, the real reason so many cars are still stuck in the virtual Stone Age is this:
People are dumb.
That is, we are human. And humans tend to do dumb things. Especially when surrounded by a few thousand pounds of vehicle. You see it every single day, every single time you get in your car. Maybe it's you who does the dumb thing. Lord knows I've had my share of close calls because I was an idiot. Still do sometimes. Or maybe it's the driver in the next car over.
What we don't need is help in being stupid while driving. We don't need an excuse, and we don't need a false sense of security.
Tesla Central Editor-in-Chief Derek Kessler does an excellent job breaking down just what Autopilot is, and what it isn't. And he's right that "you shouldn't trust it with your life." The problem is that with Autopilot — which remains a paid option — Tesla has put an irresistible temptation in front of the driver. Here's this great feature that lets you take your hands off the wheel for a spell. But don't take your hands off the wheel. You're responsible for what the car does. But relax for a minute. The car's got this.
This sort of technology should be used to save us from ourselves.
We've seen this time and time again in how many YouTube videos? Yes, the car can drive itself, in a sense. Yes, fooling around at 90 mph is a really bad idea. But, hey, it was fine last time. It'll be fine this time.
This sort of technology should be used to save us from ourselves. That's the idea behind it in the first place. But because of the way it's implemented — and, I'd argue, because of the "Autopilot" name itself — it's instead enabling us to be even more stupid on the road then we tend to be in the first place. It's a sexy marketing term that cloaks an important (and, it bears repeating, optional) engineering feature that undoubtedly is the future of vehicular travel. But Autopilot is not a license to endanger yourself and the people around you.
And that's always been the reason why automobile technology has lagged behind. We're simply not ready for it yet. We generally lack the discipline to keep from doing dumb things, even when we know they're dumb. We still pick up the phone in the car. We still allow us to be distracted by damned near anything.
How do you impress upon a driver that with the power of automation comes the responsibility to use it as a tool, rather than crutch? How do you make sure that otherwise responsible adults don't forget that. How in the world do you teach a new teenage driver that same lesson?
Tesla owners are explicitly beta testing Autopilot — it says as much on activation of the feature and every time it is used. But they're beta testing it more in just finding and reporting bugs and glitches and unexpected behavior, but in that Autopilot is going to get better as time goes on thanks to the data that Tesla's amassed from the fleet. We've seen that over and over in the first few years as features are improved. And, yes, on occasion, as they're fixed.
Tesla, can and does improve its products all the time. Software is never finished. It can always get better. That's the trade-off you get, though, when you move from a dumb vehicle to one that learns every single day.
But in order for us to truly use Autopilot and other driver-assist features correctly, we're also going to have to upgrade ourselves — our sense of responsibility and situational awareness in the car — along with it. Otherwise, Autopilot is a feature we maybe never should have received in the first place.