Tesla’s autopilot was too risky to be a simple software update

Tesla’s autopilot was too risky to be a simple software update
Credit: Jia Li / Shutterstock.com

So, Tesla Model S owners have been doing stupid things with their new ‘autopilot‘ feature, delivered as a software update over the air last week. Although it was only designed as a driving aid, people have been treating their vehicles as fully self-driving cars, with dangerous results.

It’s Tesla’s fault.

Yes, Elon Musk (and the update’s release notes) may have been clear about the intended use of the autopilot feature, but as their customer base is made up of early adopters and their CEO is associated with crazy, out-there moonshots, it’s clear Tesla should have been much stronger in its messaging. “Elon just made my car autonomous!” is a seductive thought, after all.

When I published a version of this piece in the TNW Weekly newsletter two days ago, I suggested that maybe the feature should have only been available via a trip to a Tesla dealership, where a staff member could have explained face-to-face how to use autopilot safely.

After the newsletter went out, one reader got in touch to suggest this was a crazy thing for a technology writer to be suggesting. I agree, it’s a pretty archaic solution, but it underlines the core point – cars are big metal death machines in the wrong hands, even if those ‘hands’ are Tesla software being used incorrectly.

Of course, it’s possible to use autopilot entirely safely but one death as a result of misplaced overconfidence in the driving ability of the software, and Tesla – and autonomous driving as a whole – would have a big PR roadblock ahead.

As over-the-air updates become more commonplace in cars, education on safe usage of new features will be an important consideration. Maybe some things are too important to just download like you would an app update on your phone.

A version of this article appeared in the TNW Weekly newsletter. Sign up to get it in your inbox every Friday.

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