What Were They Thinking?
Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 28, 2021
It feels that just about every day there is a news item for which the only reaction can be incredulity that the problem required official investigation and some sort of formal resolution. It makes you wonder just how many others there are.
Here’s one via The Guardian: “Under pressure from U.S. auto safety regulators, Tesla has agreed to stop allowing video games to be played on center touch screens while its vehicles are moving.”
It turns out that Tesla agreed to that policy a day after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a formal investigation to modify its vehicles to keep drivers from playing video games while the car is moving.
That highway safety investigation was launched after The New York Times reported this month on potential safety risks posed by game-playing while driving.
A good service medal should go to the federal agency which found that “The Vehicle Safety Act prohibits manufacturers from selling vehicles with defects posing unreasonable risks to safety, including technologies that distract drivers from driving safely.”
It’s not so clear what medal should go to Tesla, which remained silent about why it had installed sizeable video-game screens in more than a half-million cars that could be accessed while the car is in motion. But the company was responsive once the obvious problem was pointed out.
Nevertheless, the question is: What were they thinking at Tesla? Or rather, what were we thinking of creating such a desire for Tesla to fulfill?
Series of Public Safety Questions
As it happens, Tesla, run by the ever-willing-to-defy-regulation Elon Musk, has run into a series of such queries from this and other federal agencies. So have other self-driving car manufacturer less publicized than Tesla.
As The Times also reported, the same federal agency is investigating Tesla’s autopilot system, which controls speed and braking by itself, after several of its cars ran into parked vehicles and stationary objects at least 11 times and is reviewing several other accidents which resulted in 10 deaths since 2016.
It’s this notion that drivers need not pay attention as self-driving cars maneuver that seems to be behind the idea of providing game-playing-while-driving technology. Until this summer, the videogames were available while the car was in park position, but then the bar was lifted.
Tesla adds a warning to tell the driver that the car is moving and asks the driver to confirm that they are not driving at the time.
Over several years, Musk has said his cars were on the verge of complete autonomy. Other experts have questions about the assertion over safety issues. For now, a limited number of Tesla owners who have a specialized software package are allowing cars to drive themselves on city streets as well as highways.
As with Autopilot, Tesla documentation says drivers must keep their hands on the wheel, ready to take control of the car at any time.
You probably can’t do that if you’re trying to save the princess from the electronic dungeon in front of you.
Trusting Drivers, Real or Robot
Warnings from regulators or the manufacturer aside, some users of autopilot software have misused it and faced legal action, including a guy who was arrested after police saw him stretched in the back seat as the car drove.
Tesla wants to bring the future of driving luxuriously into our present. Great. Increasingly, our public roads are being used as an unregulated laboratory for effective self-driving among 108 different manufacturers. Not so great, probably.
Apparently, that might mean having to amuse newly unneeded drivers while the car itself does the work. As autopilot software frees drivers, they “take their hands off the steering wheel for extended periods, even though they are not supposed to. And (the software) lacks an effective means of ensuring that drivers keep their eyes on the road,” explained The Times.
Driver inattention of all sorts is officially cited as the cause of about 10 percent of traffic deaths, though the total is probably higher. So, we have people arrested for texting, but until now, not for playing video games.
Other manufacturers have been disabling various electronic add-ons while the car is in motion.
It sounds like an area ripe for regulation — unless this all is too obvious to be in the news or before a congress member otherwise too busy making fund-raising calls.