A month ago, towards the end of August 2021, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system after it was found responsible for 11 accidents, resulting in 17 injuries and one death. Now a new study, conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has confirmed how unsafe Elon Musk’s infamous autopilot feature actually is.
Titled A model for naturalistic glance behavior around Tesla Autopilot disengagements, the study backs up the idea that the electric vehicle company’s “Full-Self Driving” (FSD) system is in fact—surprise, surprise—not as safe as it claims. After following Tesla Model S and X owners during their daily routine for periods of a year or more throughout the greater Boston area, MIT researchers found that, more often than not, they become inattentive when using partially automated driving systems. Note here that I went from calling the autopilot a Full-Driving system—which is the term Tesla uses to describe it and therefore entails it is fully autonomous—to then qualifying it of an automated driving system, also known as an advanced driver assist system (ADAS), which is what it truly is.
“Visual behavior patterns change before and after [Autopilot] disengagement,” the study reads. “Before disengagement, drivers looked less on road and focused more on non-driving related areas compared to after the transition to manual driving. The higher proportion of off-road glances before disengagement to manual driving were not compensated by longer glances ahead.” To be completely fair, it does make sense that drivers would feel less inclined to be attentive when they think their car’s autopilot is fully in control. Only thing is, it isn’t.
Meanwhile, by the end of this week, Tesla will roll out the newest version of its autopilot beta software, the version 10.0.1 in this case, on public roads—completely ignoring the current federal investigation when it comes to the safety of its system. Billionaire tings, go figure.
Musk has also clarified that not everyone who has paid for the FSD software will be able to access the beta version, which promises more automated driving functions. First things first, Tesla will use telemetry data to capture personal driving metrics over a 7-day period in order to ensure drivers are still remaining attentive enough. “The data might also be used to implement a new safety rating page that tracks the owner’s vehicle, which is linked to their insurance,” added TechCrunch.
In other words, Musk is aware of the risk the current autopilot system represents, and he’s working hard on improving it, or at least making sure he’s not going to be the one to blame if more Tesla-related accidents happen. How do you say your autopilot is not an autopilot without clearly saying it—and therefore risking to hurt your brand? You release a newer version of it that can easily blame drivers for their carelessness, duh.
“The researchers found this type of behavior may be the result of misunderstanding what the [autopilot] feature can do and what its limitations are, which is reinforced when it performs well. Drivers whose tasks are automated for them may naturally become bored after attempting to sustain visual and physical alertness, which researchers say only creates further inattentiveness,” continued TechCrunch.
My opinion on Musk and Tesla aside, the point of the MIT study is not to shame Tesla, but rather to advocate for driver attention management systems that can give drivers feedback in real-time or adapt automation functionality to suit a driver’s level of attention. Currently, Tesla’s autopilot system doesn’t monitor driver attention via eye or head-tracking—two things that researchers deem necessary.
The technology in question—which is a model for glance behaviour—already exists, with automobile manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz and Ford allegedly already working on implementing it. Will Tesla follow suit or will Musk’s ‘only child’ energy rub off on the company?
Elon Musk has historically been in favour of colonising Mars; in fact, he’s never shied away from it. Among other proposed methods to make the planet habitable for humans is the possibility to nuke it, which Musk seems hell-bent on, cheekily teasing the idea once again. What he actually means by “nuking” it is to terraform Mars—a deliberate modification of the planet’s environment to make it fit for humans.
The teasing of this method came after @stats_feed tweeted yesterday, “While Mars temperatures at the equator can reach as high as a balmy 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer at midday, the average temperature on the surface is -63 degrees Celsius (-82 degrees Fahrenheit), and can reach as low as -143 degrees Celsius (-226 degrees Fahrenheit) during winter in the polar regions.” Musk cheekily replied to the tweet saying, “Needs a little warming up.”
This is not the first time the billionaire has teased the idea; in fact, there is a well documented timeline of his comments on the matter. His theory was first made known back in 2015 after Musk appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and described that the “fixer-upper” planet could be warmed up the “fast way” by “drop[ping] thermo-nuclear weapons over the poles,” to which Colbert responded calling him a “supervillain.” Later on 16 August 2019, Musk famously tweeted, “Nuke Mars!” later adding “T-shirt soon.” As promised, t-shirts did indeed come soon after.
The ‘real life Tony Stark’ later clarified his comments made on the talk show at an event held that same year for SolarCity—one of the largest solar energy companies in the US owned by Musk. He’s not looking to actually nuke the surface of the planet, just the sky over the poles every few seconds, he clarified. I’m not sure that’s any better, Musk… The idea behind this proposed method would be to form “two tiny pulsing suns” over these poles. “A lot of people don’t appreciate that our Sun is a large fusion explosion,” he explained.
Following his 2019 comments, the Tesla founder did his best to respond to scientific queries on this plan, making me think he is probably prepared to go to any lengths necessary to expand and explore this method. A 2020 Russian news agency TASS article—whereby SpaceX’s terraforming Mars strategy was questioned by a Russian space official—was shared with Musk via Twitter. The official stated, “For a thermonuclear explosion on Mars’ pole, one of the plans of SpaceX, to have tangible results, more than 10,000 launches of missiles that can carry the largest payloads and are being developed now are needed.”
To which Musk replied, “No problem.”
Just shy of a year later, that previously mentioned t-shirt made a criticised appearance. In an image posted and shared by Saturday Night Live (SNL) in May 2021, to promote the SpaceX CEO’s controversial hosting gig, Musk was seen sporting a T-shirt that read “Nuke Mars.” The picture only swelled the complaints against the show and Lorne Michaels—the show’s executive producer—for selecting Musk for the job.
So Musk’s been in favour of it and his latest tweet seems to showcase that he still is (so much so that it’s become a meme at this point) but what exactly is the ‘science’ behind his strategy? The tiny ‘suns’ that the dropping of thermonuclear weapons would form—according to Musk—would proceed to warm the planet and transform any frozen carbon dioxide into gas. Essentially, the problem that we have on Earth, with CO2 warming up our planet, is what would happen in the case of Mars. The more CO2 present in the atmosphere of the planet, the hotter its surface would become.
Such a mission is incredibly complicated, not scientifically certain and likely impossible to come to fruition but Musk’s blasé response to call it a “little warming up” is another in a long list of his “supervillain” tendencies.