Some Highways are Manic Minefield for Full Self-Driving Car

Every year in Florida there are thousands upon thousands of accidents caused by road debris, some fatal, with millions in damages. Estimates are that 123,000 tons of potential accident causing debris are removed from our roadways every year in Florida. Where does this debris come from? Mostly unsecured loads in open truck beds, open rear van doors, and open hatches. Added to this is all the debris caused by crashes presenting us with a destructive chicken and the egg paradox of which came first the accident or the debris. We may never answer that deep question, but this much is clear, the number of crashes and damage on Florida roads due to debris has been going up year after year, and so has the bill all of us are paying.

I drive everywhere using Autopilot in my Tesla Model S 100D. Autopilot is not ready for fully self-driving (FSD) just yet, but it is getting there. Until that day, Tesla requires the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road ready to take control if needed. For the uninitiated, this may sound complicated, but it’s not. It is far more relaxing and safe to let Tesla’s Autopilot take care of all the pesky details of steering, braking, and acceleration, while I keep an eye out for what is coming at me from far down the road. With Autopilot it’s easy to be a much more defensive driver, which is just what is needed when braving the war zone known as everyday South Florida traffic.

The other day, and not for the first time, I found myself contributing to Florida’s road debris accident statistics. Thankfully it was nothing fatal, but this time it was a close call. While driving on the Florida Turnpike near south mile marker 80, my Tesla was hit by what looked like a foot-long flying steel pipe. It all happened far faster than I could react. The projectile missed my windshield by a foot and glanced off my car’s sunroof leaving a bullet hole and 3 foot crack behind. Here’s a slow-motion video caught by my dashcam and a photo or two of the bullet hole. It looks like the projectile was launched by a U-Haul in the fast lane towing a car while doing 85 in a 65 mph zone. I would be tempted to say speeding, but since the U-Haul was going under twice the posted speed limit, by the unwritten laws of Florida, that was not speeding.

The more observant out there will note there is no audio on this clip. This is because I wanted to keep my PG rating. Were there audio, all you would hear is a loud gunshot-like crack follow by my wife screaming and me cursing uncontrollably. 

If we had been just one car length farther back, the pipe would have squarely hit the windshield right in front of my face. Since a glancing impact left a bullet hole in my roof, I can only imagine what a solid impact would have done to my windshield and my face. I could be in the hospital right now or dead. Instead, I’m left with thousands of dollars in damages that no one will pay except me. The guilty party will get off free.

Why Floridians put up with this kind of uncivilized existence on their roadways is a mystery. I have driven a whopping grand total of 11,000 miles since moving to South Florida. Over those scant miles, on Florida highways I’ve been hit by a 2.5-gallon plastic paint can flying through the air, received 8 chips and dips in my windshield, dodged countless other Florida meteorites, and was almost killed by the infamous flying steel pipe. All these road debris debaucheries and more occurred on Rt-95 which I now refuse to drive on and the Turnpike which I’m about to refuse to drive on. 

In all the decades I’ve driven in other metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Dallas, and the NYC tristate area, I’ve had to dodge pieces of deadly flying road debris a few times. Here in South Florida, flying road debris is almost a daily occurrence for every driver on its highways and any piece of it can turn deadly by causing an accident. This is simply not normal highway conditions. This is post-apocalyptic madness! Sadly, Florida is not the only state where there is open warfare on its roadways.

Why does this happen here in South Florida so much more than in many other states? I think the answer is simple. We barely enforce our traffic laws, and even when we do, the penalties are not enough to stop the behavior. It’s illegal to text and drive in Florida, but it is also illegal for a police officer to stop someone for texting and driving. Brilliant, huh? It’s illegal to speed, but everyone knows you won’t be stopped on a highway for speeding unless you are leaving a sonic boom in your wake. It’s illegal to drive recklessly, weaving through traffic and tailgating, but when one out of every dozen drivers is guilty of this crime, you know the laws are not being enforced. 

As far as road debris is concerned, it is illegal to drive with an unsecured load. When was the last time that law was enforced? Judging by the dozens of unsecured loads in truck beds, trailers, and vans spotted per mile of highway driven, I’d say the enforcement rate is just about zero. You can’t drive anywhere without spotting a pickup truck spewing a trail of leaves, sticks, dirt, rocks, and other landscaping debris. The same is true for people hauling construction tools bouncing around in their truck bed, a mattress on a roof ready to take flight, an uncovered truckload of gravel, or just someone bringing home granny’s rocker. No need to tie it down, gravity will keep it where we stuck it. Never mind all those other pesky laws of physics.

The damage done by a single piece of road debris is amplified by vehicles with exposed tires which turn basic road debris into missiles again and again and again. When was the last time you saw a jacked-up truck with protruding tires, sporting mud flaps to protect you, the poor slob stuck behind this rolling debris machinegun? Never is probably a fairly accurate answer, because there are no basic safety laws in Florida requiring mud flaps for exposed tires. So since no Floridians seem to be for debris gun control of any kind, we and our A.I. autopilot servants (at least until the revote comes) need to learn how to dodge the bullets better. 

My Tesla was under Autopilot control when the pirate U-Haul took its shot at us. Had I been driving, I might have swerved and killed someone or I might have been able to dodge the bullet. We’ll never know. But what I do know is that Tesla will never achieve true FSD that you can enable and forget until it’s A.I. learns to handle flying road debris, potholes, and other roadway weapons of mass destruction.

Tesla has a goal of running a fleet of FSD used for ride-sharing. If this fleet cannot learn to dodge potholes and road debris then it will face debilitating repair costs in some states. Florida has one of the highest electric car adoption rates in the country. It is at times either the second or third biggest market for Teslas only constantly exceeded by California. So the need is very real here in the Sunshine State.

Tesla has something called Sentry Mode which is an A.I. powered burglar alarm system that keeps an eye out for suspicious characters getting a little to close to the car. What I would love to see in my next Tesla is an active deflector shield for road debris added to Sentry Mode. Perhaps something involving tennis balls, high velocity, and compressed air? I doubt that wish will be a reality anytime soon, even though I think it could also work wonders for tailgaters. So instead, how about some type of evasive action programmed into the car’s brain? Often this might require little more than braking or acceleration along with hitting the 4-way flashers to warn the car behind of the debris heading its way. I can see it all so clearly now. Tesla rolling out its new Active Accident Avoidance System, but then again, I’m a techno-thriller and science fiction novelist by trade.