|Why how we talk about car technology matters.|
That's the story badge for a post on Fusion today about a recent video of a Volvo XC60 driving into a group of bystanders. Labeled "Self-parking car accident!", the clip shows the vehicle backing up and then accelerating into a group of people who expect it to stop. But it doesn't.
Here's the problem: There was no system error. If there was any error, it was with the humans operating the vehicle. According to Volvo representative Johan Larsson, the video is mislabeled. Now, no one has talked to the people in the video, but Larsson says the demonstration is most likely of Volvo's pedestrian-detection and self-braking systems, not of any self-parking feature. And as Larsson also points out, this car does not appear to be one that has the pedestrian-detection feature, which is an option. If that's true—that they tried to test out the pedestrian-detection feature on a car that doesn't have it installed—then this is really just a case of dumb humans.
But that's not how Fusion decided to cast it, titling the story Volvo says horrible 'self-parking car accident' happened because driver didn't have 'pedestrian detection'. Fusion's Kashmir Hill sets up a scary scene of an automated future gone awry, but when all the facts are given proper context, the truth is quite the opposite.
We don't know if and when truly autonomous cars will hit the road. What we do know is that our vehicles are becoming increasingly sophisticated machines capable of incredible feats, and for exactly that reason reporting and writing about this topic in a responsible way is extremely important. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of a car that can drive itself, let alone park itself. When something really does goes wrong, the coverage is going to be everywhere and sensationalized. Is there really a need to create controversy where there is none? If anything, it's this kind of response that can create a chilling effect on innovation.
That said, let's run through some key paragraphs in the Fusion post to see what went wrong:
"A group of people stand in a garage watching and filming a grey Volvo XC60 that backs up, stops, and then accelerates toward the group. It smashes into two people, and causes the person filming the video with his phone to drop it and run. It is terrifying."
In trying to set a dramatic scene, Hill seems to imply that the car does not have a driver and is acting under its own volition. In fact, there is a passenger and driver in the car.
"The main issue, said Larsson, is that it appears that the people who bought this Volvo did not pay for the "Pedestrian detection functionality," which is a feature that costs more money."
When explaining Larsson's "disturbing" response, Hill uses italics to indicate that she is absolutely perplexed that an expensive and advanced technology might cost more money on top of the standard price. (Or, perhaps, she's astonished that Volvo wouldn't equip all of its cars with all available safety tech, no matter what the cost.) I think we're all in agreement that pedestrian-detection systems should one day be standard, but there are many different types of safety systems that cost extra money. If they were all standard or made mandatory by NHTSA, that extra cost would just be passed on to the buyer. For now, Volvo, one of the safest car manufacturers in the world, would rather give people the option here.
"The Volvo XC60 comes with City Safety as a standard feature, however, this does not include the Pedestrian detection functionality," said Larsson. The "City Safety system" kicks in when someone is in stop-and-go traffic, helping the driver avoid rear ending another car while driving slowly, or under 30 mph.Keeping the car safe is included as a standard feature, but keeping pedestrians safe isn't. "It appears as if the car in this video is not equipped with Pedestrian detection," said Larsson. "This is sold as a separate package."
To be fair, City Safe protects the cars you might hit and the people in them, but I guess it's more shocking to couch it this way. More importantly, the most common type of vehicle-on-vehicle accident is a low-speed rear-end collision, often combined with distracted driving. So it makes sense that City Safety would be the safety feature that comes standard, no?
But even if it did have the feature, Larsson says the driver would have interfered with it by the way they were driving and "accelerating heavily towards the people in the video." "The pedestrian detection would likely have been inactivated due to the driver inactivating it by intentionally and actively accelerating," said Larsson. "Hence, the auto braking function is overrided by the driver and deactivated."
So, what are we saying here? In this scenario—which is probably hypothetical, since the car most likely didn't have pedestrian detection—it sounds like Hill wants the reader to be bothered by the fact that the car wouldn't have just stopped itself and outright prevented the driver from accelerating into the passengers.
The fact is, today's safety systems require a tricky balance of aiding and warning drivers without completely removing their power to make steering and throttle inputs. Until cars become truly autonomous, the driver is ultimately responsible for understanding how the technology works and to use it appropriately.
Meanwhile, the people in the video seem to ignore their instincts and trust that the car assumed to be endowed with artificial intelligence knows not to hurt them. It is a sign of our incredible faith in the power of technology, but also, it's a reminder that companies making AI-assisted vehicles need to make safety features standard and communicate clearly when they aren't. According to the Dominican blog, the "two men hit were bruised but are ok."
Well, this is all mostly true, and Hill makes some good points! People shouldn't assume that every car has semiautonomous capabilities that will stop it from hurting them. They also probably shouldn't stand in front of a car to test those technologies, either. As for making all safety systems standard, that's a bit more complicated. But her final thought is spot on: Carmakers need to make sure people clearly understand what technology is in their car and what their vehicle is capable of. This is a very valid point to make as our cars only get more complicated. Too bad we had to wade through everything else to get there.