On May 7, a Tesla Model S, with Autopilot engaged, slammed full-speed into a tractor-trailer that pulled out in front of it, killing the Tesla’s driver. The incident was billed as the first death caused by autonomous car technology and raised questions about whether the Tesla Autopilot – or any similar type of system, for that matter – is ready for prime time. This was a blow to an industry that has been touting self-driving cars as the answer to the over 33,000 people who die from motor vehicle crashes each year in the U.S.
Then, within days of initial reports, Reuters reported that there was a portable DVD player inside the vehicle playing a video at the moment of impact. The conclusion: Although the Tesla failed to “see” the truck, the driver didn’t see it either, presumably because he was distracted by watching a video.
This isn’t the only example of a Tesla driver pushing the limits of Autopilot. Despite the automaker’s warnings that Autopilot is not intended to be a fully autonomous system – and that the driver must be able to retake control of the vehicle at any time – there have been numerous YouTube videos posted by Model S owners, depicting them engaging in high-risk behaviors, including dozing off behind the wheel.
Could it be that an automated driving technology touted to save lives has actually created more opportunity for riskier behavior?
Perhaps. According to Art Liggio, president of Driving Dynamics Inc. (www.drivingdynamics.com), a Newark, Del.-based firm that provides driver safety training and fleet risk management expertise to organizations, the concept is called “risk compensation,” a theory that suggests people typically adjust their behavior in response to how they perceive a level of risk, often becoming less careful the more protected they feel.
“As the Tesla crash demonstrates, once drivers become dependent on ‘advanced’ systems, they often move to a higher risk category,” Liggio said.
Yet this isn’t just a Tesla or consumer issue. As automated driving technologies – such as adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance systems – become more mainstream, how will fleets grapple with the potential impact of risk compensation behaviors among their drivers?
I’m curious what you’re experiencing with this issue. Have you seen an increase in risky behaviors with drivers operating vehicles with advanced systems? If so, what is your organization doing to manage that risk and correct those behaviors? Or, is it a nonissue so far?
Sean M. Lyden