This article was published on April 2, 2018

Tesla’s biggest problem is human error

Tesla’s biggest problem is human error
Tristan Greene
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Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: Tristan is a futurist covering human-centric artificial intelligence advances, quantum computing, STEM, physics, and space stuff. Pronouns: He/him

Elon Musk yesterday took part in some April Fool’s Day shenanigans despite one of his companies having an absolutely awful week. Showing a brave face, the tech mogul teasingly tweeted Tesla was declaring bankruptcy. We’re certain Musk and the only manufacturer to put a car in space will be fine for now, but the company’s gonna have to stop joking around if it wants to avoid Elon’s jests becoming prophecy. It’s time for Tesla to face its biggest problem: human error.

Over the past week the company’s been hit with a bevy of horrible setbacks. It’s missed production numbers yet again, been forced to issue an expensive recall, and another Tesla driver lost their life in an accident while Autopilot was engaged. Obviously things aren’t great for Tesla right now and its shares are down seven percent because of it.

So far the company has gotten by on its technological merit. As geek has become chic, TV shows like “Silicon Valley” have somehow made it fashionable to be Tesla and created a market for the expensive cars that, until recently, had the company valued higher than Ford.

Yet, human-error continues to plague the company and it’s going to take more than an engineer’s good ideas to fix that problem.

For starters, it’s time for Musk and company to reconsider the idea of calling its driver assistance technology “Autopilot.” It encourages people to do stupid things like ignore warnings. In fact, in the fight for our lives against human error, it may even be worth wasting people’s time to make the point.

When Autopilot detects a person’s hands aren’t on the wheel for more than five seconds the car should immediately engage a safety protocol that involves actively reducing speed and shouldering the car away from traffic at a dead stop. Because right now it’s pretty easy to ignore the current warning system:

The above video shows an ignorant person trying to demonstrate the fault with Tesla’s Autopilot by reenacting last month’s fatal accident. Aside from the fact that this person is obviously not a trained professional and shouldn’t be risking his or her life or the lives of other people on the road, they’re also holding a camera and filming while intentionally driving dangerously. Unfortunately people are going to use these products in ways they aren’t intended for until cars are truly autonomous. Tesla’s human engineers need to design for this, period.

And it’s not just the customers causing problems. The Model S recall, despite being limited only to older models, will cost the company a lot of money and consumers hours of their time. It’s also due entirely to human error. Someone gave the go ahead on a design for a $75,000 car with bolts in the steering apparatus that rust when exposed to cold climates.

Tesla can’t blame its missed deadlines on bad circumstances either, because they’re also a result of bad decision making. Musk’s idea for manufacturing using only automation in the last mile has proven more expensive and time-consuming than expected. Stuck somewhere between cost-effective and properly-scaled, Tesla’s automation plans have yet to provide the kind of next-level production the company was hoping for.

If Musk wants Tesla to build the car of the future he’s going to have to find a way to minimize the human errors committed by himself, his employees, and his customers. Making a car is easy, but making it safe for humans to use is, sadly, something no company has accomplished yet.

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