Just as you should avoid the hospital in July (when new-fledged M.D.s begin to really learn their craft), so now may be a good time to give wide berth to any Tesla Model S you may see. Today, Tesla Motors finally uploaded its Autopilot software to owners, and many of them are experimenting with it on the road: "Look, Ma! No hands!"
Plenty of videos are up, mostly from enthusiasts. Here’s a cute one from John Bates, who lists himself on Twitter as a tech executive and a Tesla owner:
As the company said it would do a few months ago, it has put in several constraints to protect the people in the car from overconfidence. The car changes lanes only after Bates hits the turn indicator, and it requires him to put his hands on the wheel every 10 seconds. That last trick was introduced in the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S Class, the first commercial car that could say (if it could talk) that it drove itself.
Other constraints are less obvious because the day is warm and sunny. Tesla’s Autopilot won’t engage at all unless it can perceive lane markings, something it often would not be able to do under snowy conditions. And it may not be able to judge, ahead of time, whether an object by the side of the road is a fire hydrant or a little boy who might be about to dart into traffic.
It’s a technical tour de force, but it’s also a beta test. We should find out whether it passed that test in a few months.
Philip E. Ross became a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum in June 2006. His interests include transportation, energy storage, artificial intelligence, natural-language processing, and the economic aspects of technology. He has reported on solar towers in Spain, cloud seeding in Nevada, telescopes atop a mountain in the Canaries, and robotic cars in California and Germany. He blogs mainly for Cars That Think, which won a 2015 Neal Award. Earlier in his career he worked for Red Herring, Forbes, Scientific American, and The New York Times. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.