Orion Health boss on the sometimes ‘nervewracking’ experience of driving his Tesla on autopilot

PLUS: READER POLL RESULT: Would you ride in a car on autopilot? With special feature audio: Local Tesla owner Ian McCrae details how the sometimes unsettling autopilot mode actually works.

Tesla has revealed the first known death of someone riding in a car in self-driving mode.

Ohio man Joshua Brown was killed after his Tesla Model S ploughed into a truck-trailer that cut across him. The vehicle was in autopilot mode at the time, and did not see the white side of the truck against a brightly lit sky.

The auto-pilot mode has been in all Tesla hardware since October 2014 and was enabled in an October 2015 software upgrade as an optional $US2500 extra.

Autopilot does everything. It sticks to a speed limit and following distance set by the driver (say, three or five car-lengths), handles acceleration and deceleration and braking, and will even change lanes to avoid an obstacle, or if the resting driver flicks the indicator stalk.

Orion Health chief executive Ian McCrae is one of the first New Zealanders to buy a Tesla. He imported a Model S from Australia and got the latest software upgrade – complete with autopilot enabled – in the new year.

He tells NBR he’s happily used the feature, and will continue to use autopilot.

Mr McCrae quotes the statistic Tesla has rolled out after the death in the US: it was the first fatality in 130 million driven miles with autopilot enabled. By contrast, the total for all vehicles in the US is one fatality for every 94 million miles. Worldwide, it’s 60 million miles.

He also notes his Telsa has been accident-free overall during a period when his daughter has dinged "every panel" of her car.*

The Orion boss remains a happy owner and full of boyish enthusiasm for his purchase.

Yet Tesla is unlikely to quote him in any ads, as he’s also open about the limitations of autopilot, and the way it can be unsettling rather than relaxing.

Giving it a go
“The software download [enabling autopilot] happened for me in January,” Mr McCrae says.

“Of course, the first thing you want to do is try it out. It works reasonably well on the motorway. You have to have white lines for the cameras to see. It’s a little nervewracking though because, when it goes into corners, it doesn’t quite take the line through the corner that you might do as a driver. It accelerates or brakes a little differently."

If you tap the indicator left or right, the Tesla will look for a gap in traffic, then change lanes by itself. Mr McCrae says he always takes a look around himself to double-check the coast is clear.

Like many cars with old-fashioned cruise control, the Telsa accelerates back to the maximum speed limit with a woomph when a slow vehicle moves out of the way.

Mr McCrae notes the top autopilot speed can be set at, say, 5km above the speed limit.

Not coping with island life
Performance depends on the quality of road markings, he says.

“When you’re on Waiheke Island and the lines run out, the car gets a bit confused there. It all turns bad and you’ve got to have good reflexes then.”

It needs good white lines, Mr McCrae says.

"I defy anyone to drive from Auckland to Wellington on autopilot. Having said that, someone's probably going to give it a go."

Hands on the wheel. Sort of
One report says Mr Brown was distracted by a Harry Potter DVD at the time of his collision but this has yet to be corroborated.

I’m pretty impressed by this driver being relaxed enough to watch a Harry Potter movie as he was driving along the motorway," Mr McCrae says.

Others have posted videos to YouTube of “relaxed” behaviour while a Tesla is on autopilot, including one clip showing the “driver” reading a newspaper.

Mr McCrae says Tesla made it very clear to him as an owner that autopilot is still a beta or trial feature, and that the driver is supposed to keep their hands on the wheel – although he notes that in practice the driver has to "sort of hover your hands above it or grip it loosely as the vehicle’s self-drive computer takes control and moves the wheel."

He adds, “It’s a bit disconcerting when a car pulls into a different lane in front of you [clearing the way ahead] and suddenly your car takes off to get up to the speed limit again.

“It doesn’t quite have that peripheral vision or human anticipation as to what’s going to happen next. So it’s not quite that relaxing, no. In fact, the family do complain about the car because it has such intensive acceleration. I find it great myself … It’s only going to get better.”

Reader poll result
NBR readers don't share Mr McCrae's enthusiasm for this emerging Tesla technology. 

Most say they would not ride down a motorway in a car on autopilot (see graphic above right).

I have to say I agree with them. Intellectually, I'm with Mr McCrae: that stats speak for themselves. It is safer to trust the computer. Emotionally and psychologically, I'm with readers and would probably run down the street rather than get into a car on autopilot. And as perfectly as a computer-driven car can follow the road rules, I'm less sure about AI's ability handle humans, who frequently ignore said rules in random fashion due to reasons of emotion, booze or boredom – all of which induce difficult-to-predict behaviours.


POSTSCRIPT

Ian McCrae wonders if it's legal to drive a vehicle in autopilot on a New Zealand road. Good question. NBR put in a question to the NZTA, which referred us on to the Ministry of Transport, which could not immediately provide a detailed response. A reply should arrive Tuesday afternoon. Stay tuned. UPDATE: Yes, it's legal. Read the MoT's full response here.

* Disgruntled McCrae family members are advised to sue their father rather than NBR.

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