Testing a Driverless Future in a Tesla


There are times when I want to move into a cottage and scold neighborhood children, wagging a crooked finger because their revolutionary ways scare me. Then there are times when I welcome the inevitable robot apocalypse, wishing artificial intelligence would just take over already. Yes, fine, yes, gather my data, tell me what to do, image-capture my chins from an up-angle, put me in a giant space egg while reading softly in the disembodied voice of George Orwell. I don't care! My wagging finger is tired, and I am confused!

Anyway, I recently found myself riding in a Tesla.

I do mean riding, because no one, least of all the driver, was completely driving. My colleague recently bought a new white Tesla Model Y that does, in fact, look like a space egg. Starting in April, he tapped into a Tesla promotion. The company, run by problematic social media overlord and would-be Ozymandias Elon Musk, offered customers free trials of what Tesla calls Full Self-Driving technology. The most advanced version of Tesla's driver assistance software is normally a $12,000 add-on, or $199 a month.

It's a bit of a misnomer, as the car requires a human presence. In fact, the government insists on it. In December, Tesla recalled software in more than two million vehicles after officials said the company needed to do more to keep drivers paying attention. And this month, Tesla settled a lawsuit involving the 2018 death of an Apple engineer who was using an earlier version of the tech when the car crashed. There are other cases around the country.

My co-worker offered to take me for a robot spin.

"OK," I said, thinking, "Well, I've had a good run."

He deposited his work bag in the front hood of the car.

"Your trunk is in the front," I observed.

"That's the FRUNK," he replied, explaining that I needed to understand the Tesla terminology.

The space egg was comfortable and cool on a hot spring day. On an enormous dashboard computer tablet, he punched in a destination a few miles away. He backed out, which the tech requires, and started the magic.

The car... drove. Itself. The Tesla warned him to be prepared to take over. He tapped the steering wheel occasionally, the way one wiggles a mouse to appear active in a Microsoft Teams meeting.

The car switched lanes. The car stopped at stop signs. The car used artificial intelligence and cameras to process images in a fraction of a second to perform road tasks, let's be honest, better than a lot of humans who are trying to put on a podcast while dipping chicken nuggets in buffalo sauce.

This was impressive, no doubt. I considered how Musk's grip on the culture left me feeling morally, ethically and intellectually untethered, a la puking after an elated whirl on the Gravitron. In a world where car safety messaging has trended toward anti-distraction -- put the device down! It can wait! -- here I was, riding inside a giant cartoon phone.


Me, I drive a seven-year-old stick-shift Fiat, a little car I love, a car whose name is Frank, if you must know. I would like to own an electric vehicle eventually, and a bit of artificial assistance wouldn't be the worst thing. At 5 feet tall, I struggle to see over all dashes. Curbs are anyone's guess. What Tesla has concocted could help those with physical and mental limitations. It could chauffeur impaired people safely at the end of bleary nights. Musk has promised to introduce a fleet of self-driving taxis in August called... ugh, robotaxis, joining other brands in the autonomous taxi market.

On the other hand, could driverless capabilities motivate drunk people to hit the road en masse? Do we really want that? And what will the rules of the road look like when everyone is slathering on sunless tanner and drinking tequila out of a Big Gulp in the droid cars from "Wall-E"?

The day after my joy (?) ride, I called Tesla enthusiast Nick Howe in Boca Raton for more perspective. Howe, president of Tesla Owners of Florida, said the tech still has kinks, and it's always changing. Even fans tend to ding Musk for overpromising (robotaxi skepticism remains high in the industry). But advances, Howe believes, come in the name of safety.

Tesla's previous self-driving tech "drove like someone who has just been given a learners license," he said. "You could tell that it was having to think so hard to try and figure out what to do. It was incredibly cautious. It would make weird, silly mistakes." The latest version, the one I got to experience, "is very, very humanlike. It's much smoother. It makes decisions much more quickly. It is still a little cautious and deliberately so."

Howe dove into an explanation of how Tesla got here: billions of miles of video intel used to train cars to drive in real-world situations. Tesla says they don't view footage taken inside the cars in most circumstances. If this is to be believed, technicians have missed untold Beyonce karaoke.

I asked Howe if any of it freaks him out.

"At the end of the day, you're driving a two-ton killing machine," he said. "A momentary lapse of attention has you into a pole or into a bicycle or into a pedestrian in literally a fraction of a second." He believes driver assistance will save lives.

Howe went to Illinois to watch the eclipse in his Tesla. He did 2,000 miles round-trip on Full Self-Driving. He listened to audiobooks, relaxed. It's hard to do much sandwich-eating or email-checking, he said, because the car yells at you if you take your eyes off the road too long.

In my colleague's Tesla, I remembered then, we had been heading back to the office, merging into a left turn lane, when the system made a loud chime. Neither of us knew exactly what it meant, but my friend gripped the wheel and drove the old-fashioned way for a second. Even in the most seamless moments, it seems, it's still crucial to have control.


Stephanie Hayes is a columnist at the Tampa Bay Times in Florida. Follow her at @stephhayes on Twitter or @stephrhayes on Instagram.


Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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