Tesla's autonomous vehicle control system warned Joshua Brown 7 times to take over control of the car before his fatal crash last year. Photo: NTSB/Florida Highway Patrol

Tesla's autonomous vehicle control system warned Joshua Brown 7 times to take over control of the car before his fatal crash last year. Photo: NTSB/Florida Highway Patrol

Believe it or not, I’ve never seen the Harry Potter movies. But they must be pretty good, considering that Joshua Brown, the victim of last year’s famed “Tesla Crash” was allegedly watching one of the films right up to the point when his car T-boned a tractor trailer last year, killing him.

New details about that crash have emerged from the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation, including the well-publicized fact that Tesla’s autonomous system warned Brown seven different times that he needed to assume control of the car, and that he manually bumped his speed higher just two minutes before the crash occurred.

I’m not familiar with the Tesla autonomous driving system, although I have spent a limited amount of time behind the wheel of Freightliner’s Inspiration Truck while it was in self-driving mode. And I can attest that programming the truck to slow down and eventually pull off the road in the event road conditions aren’t absolutely perfect for autonomous vehicle control is one of the system’s core attributes. In fact, the Daimler Highway Pilot system is so safety-conscious, it will pull the truck off the highway if any number of critical information inputs aren’t being met. Anything from faded lane markings to a spotty GPS signal is enough to make Highway Pilot punt and hand control back over to one of us human beings or simply pull off the road if – I dunno – the wizard is about to zap a dragon with his magic wand, or something.

If you’re lucky as a writer, you might get to invent a bunch of new words (like that show-off, Shakespeare) or, more likely nowadays, get credit for coining a new phrase. So I’m going to note right here and now that “Cruise Control on Steroids” is mine. I’ve been saying for a couple of years now – and I’ve been told by several autonomous vehicle designers that it is a perfect description for the first generation of autonomous vehicle control systems that are just now starting to show up on roadways all over the globe.

For all the angst about the societal implications of autonomous vehicles (and autonomous trucks in particular), the fact is we are still a long way from the time when you’ll be able to watch Harry Potter VII: Curse Of The Unpredictable Bowels or argue with your significant other on FaceTime while your rig drives itself down the highway.

That said, based on my as-yet-limited experience behind the wheel of an autonomous truck, I believe drivers today will actually be pretty enthusiastic about these control systems once they’re commercially viable and being spec’d on trucks.

Full-on everywhere-you-look autonomous vehicle use isn’t likely to happen until we make considerable strides in upgrading our infrastructure, including major investments in vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology and capability, as well as a common platform for vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) systems – and the deployment of those technologies in sufficient numbers to make a significant impact on how vehicles behave in various driving scenarios.

Case in point: One of the more memorable aspects of my Inspiration Truck test-drive was watching with hands off the wheel, while the truck worked its way through a bumper-to-bumper traffic snarl heading into Las Vegas. That’s a stressful situation that every driver on this planet hates. So why not take a break? Rub your eyes. Stretch your back. Relax for a few minutes while the truck does the monotonous work of inching its way through the traffic jam?

I can also recall mind-numbingly straight and dull stretches of highway all over this country – from Texas to Florida to New Mexico – where there’s just not a hell of a lot for a driver to do other than hold the truck between the lines for hours on end. Or a few stretches of I-40 out west, where the afternoon sun parks itself right in your face and sits there, seemingly for hours, while you squint through your sunglasses and constantly move the sun visor around trying to get some relief. Again, in those instances, I have to believe there are a good number of drivers who would welcome the opportunity to let the truck take the wheel for a bit and go from “pilot” mode to “lookout.”

Just like there are always people scared of new technology, there are also people who place way too much trust in new technology. Which was clearly the case with Joshua Brown and his Tesla sedan. Technology – most of the time – is used to solve problems. But new technology has its limits. And autonomous vehicle technology is no different. Use it wisely, use it correctly, and it will be a powerful tool to help drivers out. Particularly truck drivers.

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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