Too alien to see?

I am not a crazy Tesla supporter… okay… well… that’s not entirely true… I am a totally insane Tesla supporter! Elon Musk is a man with a mission and I totally support his mad mission. I started an e-car R&D company when I was in my twenties. So to say I’m obsessed with e-cars is an understatement.

In case you do not know, Teslas have had the ability to self-drive on highways since April this year. Out of 130 million Tesla self-driven miles, there had been no serious accidents until an ex-Navy SEAL on a bright sunlit day in Florida fatally drove into the side of a white tractor trailer that was crossing the highway at an intersection. This is the first fatality in history to occur in a self-driving car.

Tesla has repeatedly stated that the self-driving feature is only an assist and that you must keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road… but people will be… well… “people.” Tesla has sensors built into the steering wheel. If you take your hands off the wheel while in auto-drive the car slows to a stop.

There have been reports that the man “driving” the Tesla was watching a Harry Potter movie when he broadsided the bright white tractor trailer. The man never hit the brakes and neither did the Tesla. The accident took place in dazzling sunlight, leading some to speculate that the Tesla’s electronic eyes did not see the huge white object in front of it because it was snow-blinded. This does not however explain failure of the radar or ultrasonic sensors. Three systems failed to register the big bad wall right in front of it. The trailer was high off the ground, and that too may have accounted for some of the failure of the Tesla to detect, but if the driver was not distracted or watching Harry Potter, what accounts for his failure to detect?

There are numerous documented accounts of people driving smack into small planes that had earlier performed emergency landings on highways. We are talking about people driving straight into a plane parked right in front of them. How could they miss it? The answer is as strange as the event. It’s called Inattentional Blindness. It seems that when the human brain “sees” something too alien and unexpected, it sometimes blocks out the sight. Maybe it’s a built in hallucination filter? Who knows? The point is that the driver of the Tesla might not have seen the tractor-trailer straddling the highway because it was something too unexpected to see. It’s a strange reality that we all fail to see things right in front of our faces but it is a scientifically verified fact! It would seem that the Tesla also experienced a digital-kind of Inattentional Blindness due to a failure of its programmers to “foresee” the unexpected.

Regardless, our cars are not yet smart enough that we can take our hands off the wheel, but that day is coming and will probably arrive far sooner than we think. Almost every major auto manufacturer is feverishly working at developing self-driving cars, and I remain convinced we will all be safer as a result.