Just like humans, smart cars can be confused by shoddy roadwork.
While Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist feature is frequently impressive, and a huge edge in the race to true self-driving cars, one Tesla driver was recently reminded we’re not quite to Autonomy Heaven yet.
Video taken by a trailing car shows a Tesla Model S, reportedly operating in Autopilot mode, failing to adjust for a poorly-marked temporary lane divider.
The driver, who first posted about their experience in the Tesla forum on Reddit, wasn’t seriously hurt, but the car was badly damaged.
The incident highlights a handful of related issues, some obvious, some not. First and foremost, as Tesla frequently reminds drivers, the Autopilot feature is intended to be used only as a supplement to a fully-alert driver. This vehicle was reportedly using a first-generation Autopilot system, which isn’t designed to change lanes to avoid a collision.
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More broadly worrisome, though, is the likelihood that the collision was caused by misleading lane markings, which the Autopilot system relies on to position itself. It’s apparent in the video that the primary center-lane stripe was barely obscured when the lanes were shifted by workers, and replaced with much less obvious reflective markers. The Tesla continues dutifully following the original center-lane stripe—directly into a wall.
The incident, then, raises a question not often broached in the ongoing discussion of driverless cars and responsibility. Once we shift from ‘assistive’ tech to full autonomy, how much can self-driving systems expect to rely on clear road markings or other directional infrastructure? And if those markings are flawed or absent, can legal blame be placed on sub-par road work like that seen here, or will it still revert to the car’s operator?