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After Tesla Autopilot Fatality, Auto Industry Raises Concerns Over Adopting Self-Driving Tech

In general, auto industry execs and regulators believe the evolution toward self-driving cars will improve safety and reduce traffic fatalities, but one of the trickiest problems is making it clear to the driver exactly what the car's technology can and cannot do.

by Brent Snavely, Detroit Free Press / August 2, 2016

(TNS) — TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The May death of a driver in a Tesla Model S with the Autopilot function engaged is still rippling through the automotive industry as it raises concerns about how fast the industry should adopt self-driving technology and how it should be designed.

The crash, the first known fatality linked to self-driving technology, has caused various automakers to rethink how they present self-driving technology to consumers, sparked an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and raised concerns within the industry that the accident will slow down the introduction of new technology that has the potential to save lives.

The implications of the fatal crash popped up throughout the day Monday at the Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City. The industry conference, organized by the Center for Automotive Research, brings together hundreds of top executives and industry analysts.

"The recent publicity that we’ve mentioned a few times this afternoon with the recent Tesla autopilot fatality has really opened the dialogue in the industry," said Gareth Williams, director of advanced development for Mitsubishi Electric, an automotive supplier.

Tesla Motors has acknowledged that a driver of one of its Model S cars operating in Autopilot mode died when the semi-autonomous system failed to detect a tractor-trailer turning in front of the luxury electric car.

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, said everyone in the industry knew the first fatality connected to a car with self-driving technology would cause a stir.

While the accident raises significant issues, Steudle said, "We’ve got to put it in context."

"That same day there were 95 other fatalities...and every day since then there have been 95 more fatalities," Steudle said.

Steudle said driver error is the cause of most traffic deaths.

In general, auto industry executives and regulators both believe that the evolution toward self-driving cars will improve safety and reduce traffic fatalities.

One of the trickiest problems is making it clear to the driver exactly what the car's technology can and cannot do. NHTSA outlines four levels of self-driving vehicles. Only at Level 4 can a driver completely turn all control over to the car.

Tesla's Autopilot is regarded as Level 2 technology, and the driver must remain engaged with the car while it is driving.

"I think NHTSA's Level 4 is a long way away," said Brian Daugherty, chief technology officer for the Motor Equipment Manufacturers Association.

Williams said a survey of consumers shows the automotive industry must design self-driving systems that drivers can trust and that makes them feel comfortable, but today's systems are not good enough.

In other words, when a car has self-driving technology engaged the car must be able to consistently stay in its lane and, if the car is asked to change lanes, that change must occur smoothly. If it doesn't, the driver won't trust the technology.

Williams said consumers who test-drove current vehicles with self-driving functions were not satisfied.

"An overwhelming majority, 91%, felt that the lane keeping feature could not center the vehicle in the lane. Only 9% trusted that feature," Williams said.

©2016 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.