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Sen. Ed Markey, co-architect of Green New Deal, is wrong on Tesla Autopilot

Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), co-architect of the Green New Deal, is expanding his attacks on Tesla Autopilot. He previously only took issue with drivers intentionally defeating Autopilot’s “nag,” but today he criticized the entire system, saying it “causes harm” and is “flawed.”

Markey focused on a recent crash in which a Tesla driver ran into a police vehicle while on autopilot. Electrek reported this morning about the driver being cited with reckless driving. At the time of the accident, the driver was reportedly checking on his dog in the backseat.

Tesla reminds drivers to pay attention to the road at all times, and to keep their hands on the steering wheel.

There are 6 million auto accidents per year in the US — over 16,000 per day.  We could not find a tweet from Markey about any of those other 6 million car crashes.

It should also be noted that this crash did not result in any fatalities or even injuries to either human or canine occupants of either vehicle. There are around 35,000 fatal car crashes per year in the US, about 100 per day. Markey does not typically tweet about these, either.

But this particular accident gained his attention:

Originally, Markey’s issues with Tesla Autopilot focused mostly on “nag” defeat tricks.

Tesla requires that drivers touch the steering wheel periodically to prove to the car that they are paying attention. If drivers don’t touch the steering wheel often enough, Autopilot will turn off and refuse to turn back on until the driver stops the car and thinks about what they did (yes, really).

But some drivers have figured out ways to trick the system into thinking they’re touching the steering wheel. Tesla does not approve of these methods, and neither do we at Electrek.

Tesla has made this “nag” more prominent and harder to defeat in software updates over time.

Nevertheless, in response to the existence of these “nag defeat tricks,” Markey proposed that the entire Autopilot system be turned off in a software update because he thinks it is unsafe.  According to Tesla’s internal numbers, Autopilot is almost 9 times safer than average driving conditions. NHTSA has repeatedly investigated and found that Autopilot improves safety and is not defective.

But Markey’s comments today focus on Autopilot in general.

He seems opposed to the concept of Autopilot replacing drivers on the road — something that isn’t happening. Autopilot does not replace drivers, it is a driver aid. From Tesla’s website:

Autopilot advanced safety and convenience features are designed to assist you with the most burdensome parts of driving. Autopilot introduces new features and improves existing functionality to make your Tesla safer and more capable over time.

Autopilot enables your car to steer, accelerate, and brake automatically within its lane.

Current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous. [emphasis added]

This is why the autopilot nag exists — to ensure that drivers pay attention to the car.

He then calls on Tesla to fix its “flawed system,” despite the obvious reality that they are constantly improving their system — in a way that no other auto company is.  Not only does Tesla periodically release better versions of their system, those updates go to vehicles that are already on the road through over-the-air updates. This has allowed individual older cars to get safer over time, whereas vehicles from other manufacturers do not receive the same updates to their driver assist systems.

A Model 3 purchased in 2017 could track a single lane on a highway and change lanes if you told it to do so. Now the car will suggest its own lane changes and take highway interchanges, can give you warnings about red lights, and is gaining the ability to 3D render stop signs and lights very soon. Tesla’s internal numbers, cited above, suggest that the system is getting safer over time.

Meanwhile, the driver assist features of any other vehicle stay stagnant. They never improve, and any flaws within them stay the same forever.

Drivers in those other vehicles can and do still drive distracted. Most cars have no method to enforce attention on those drivers.

Despite all of this, Markey chose to target Tesla Autopilot today and claim that it is responsible for “causing harm” by allowing its drivers to be distracted, something that can happen in any other vehicle.

Electrek’s Take

Every car has a safety system that can be easily defeated by a driver, which will then in turn make that car less safe than it was designed to be. This system is called a “seatbelt,” and it is federally mandated on every car.

But we don’t ban cars with seatbelts because the seatbelt system is too easy to defeat, simply by leaving it unbuckled. We acknowledge that drivers who defeat this system are doing something bad, and we write laws to give them tickets if they actively try to make the road less safe.

The same can be done with Autopilot nag defeat tricks. Rather than turning off a system that objectively makes cars safer, pass a law that says any driver who actively takes measures to defeat the system can be cited for doing so. That’s what we do with seatbelts.

Alternately, maybe Markey would like to pass a law against having dogs in the backseat, which was the source of the distraction in this instance. That should prove to be popular, eh?

Meanwhile, we have the architect of the Green New Deal having a knee-jerk reaction to new technology which will make the roads safer. This is a problem.

It’s a problem, because the same kind of fearmongering happens for all new technologies — especially those within the Green New Deal.

Solar panels are better for the environment, and save lives of both humans and wildlife by lowering pollution.  But in some circumstances they can be disruptive to desert habitats, or to birds if the system is poorly designed (thankfully, this is a solved problem through one simple trick). But they are far less disruptive than the alternative — coal power, which kills tons of wildlife and millions of humans per year.

The same is true for wind power. Occasionally, a bird will hit a wind turbine. Yes, this sucks. But coal power is responsible for ~3,300% more bird deaths than wind is, so it would be absurd to claim wind is unsafe when it’s far safer than the thing it’s replacing.

Markey is falling victim to the same behavior he fights against. And worse, his behavior is not conducive to his mission of cleaning up the environment. Currently, Tesla is the largest force for good, worldwide, in terms of reducing transportation emissions. This company has captured the imagination of the populace like no other has, and forced the auto industry to take electrification seriously.

Markey needs Tesla to succeed in order to meet his goals of cleaning up the transportation sector. So needless fearmongering like this is incorrect, unproductive, and must stop. Knock it off, please, Senator Markey.

If you’d like to politely let the Senator know what you think about his position on Tesla Autopilot, here’s his contact page. His staffers were very understanding when we called, so please be nice. He’s already getting slammed on twitter anyway.

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Avatar for Jameson Dow Jameson Dow

Jameson has been driving electric vehicles since 2009, and has been writing about them and about clean energy for since 2016.

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