On the way to fully self-driving cars, auto makers have been introducing systems that provide a backstop in case the driver fails to do what he or she should. One such system is parking assist. It’s meant to beat back the tyranny of dings and scratches that make you wish hateful things on the unseen persons who can’t seem to cozy up to the curb without taking a paint sample from your bumper. It uses cameras and sensors to keep an eye on the lines and cars forming the borders of the space you’re trying to get into, and it glides the vehicle into place without any incursions into another car’s territory.
That’s all the self-parking system does. Nothing else. It’s not clever hacking if you decide to stretch the capabilities of a multi-ton machine beyond what it’s designed for. It’s just dangerous and stupid. And the maker of such a system can’t possibly be held responsible when a not-so-smart driver imagines that a smart car can do more than what’s advertised.
Take for instance this video [below], originally published by Dominican blog Remolacha, in which the driver of a Volvo XC60 equipped with self-parking attempts to use it for something else: pedestrian detection and autobraking. Volvo does in fact offer a system that will cause the car to brake if a human steps into its path—for an extra US $3,000 or so—but the driver in this video apparently didn’t spring for that.
What’s tragic is that he convinced several other people to suspend their fight-or-flight instincts and stand flatfooted in front of an oncoming vehicle with the promise that it would come to a stop right before it reached them. The results are—well, the video speaks for itself. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt.
How do we know that this guy was doing the equivalent of trying to eat soup with a fork? Volvo told the good folks at Jalopnik.com that, “Unfortunately, there were some issues in the way the test was conducted.” No kidding. The Volvo spokesperson noted that even if the vehicle had been equipped with pedestrian detection, the system “would likely have been inactivated due to the driver…intentionally and actively accelerating.”
As for the driver’s colleagues/guinea pigs, I wouldn’t blame them if, from now on, they didn’t even trust him to operate a pencil sharpener unattended. If only they had gotten this bit of advice from the Volvo spokesman, who should also go by the name of Captain Obvious: “Volvo Cars strongly recommends to never perform tests towards real humans.”
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.