Saturday, December 9, 2023
December 9, 2023

Beta-tester shares self-driving car experience



I really enjoyed Shilo Zylbergold’s humorous take on self-driving cars in his Nobody Asked Me But column in the Sept. 27 Driftwood.

Most readers may not be aware of the fact that self-driving cars have been operating on the streets of Salt Spring Island for more than two years. Tesla has been on the forefront of this technology. The current software is a beta version, which is not ready for prime time, just for select cool beta-testers.

When you purchase a Tesla, the self-driving software is an optional add-on.  However, to be able to use it, you have to apply and commit to some safe driving rules. The first is that you must have your hands on the steering wheel at all times in case something goes awry. You also have to agree to some legalese.

You have to manually turn on the full self driving (FSD) software and optionally enter a destination. At all times when the FSD software is active, your driving habits are monitored. If you don’t have your hands on the wheel, are not paying attention or are distracted, the car will flash a warning and give penalty points. After five points, you are bumped out of the program.

Does the self-driving car have advantages? I believe so. I only have eyes in the front of my face.  The car has way more electronic eyes and they are located at the front of the car, on the left and right, allowing the vehicle to see around corners, and in the rear and also inside the car.  It can process images and avoid objects, like deer, faster than I can.  It has the experience of millions of miles of self-driving video footage, which is uploaded to Tesla, analyzed in a massive computer, optimized and downloaded to your car as free updates. It is always 100 per cent aware and can take action to avoid an accident or shift your direction slightly to reduce the odds of personal injury. Tesla is very serious about driving and occupant safety, making the brand among the safest cars you can buy. 

My understanding is that impaired driving is not just driving over the blood alcohol limit, but any impairment to safe driving. Unclean windows come to mind. However, if you are legally within the .05 blood alcohol limit and driving, you may still actually be less than 100 per cent of your peak performance.  With FSD turned off the car is fully alert and will warn you about lane-drifting, getting too close to road side lines, speeding, etc. Or if FSD is turned on, it will safely drive you back to your home. 

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Another example? I was recently apple picking and was asked to pick those at the top of the trees. After a few hours of looking up, my neck froze in pain. Driving home, shoulder checking at intersections was a real pain. I was an impaired driver.  The solution? FSD came to the rescue and drove me home (but I still shoulder checked to the best of my limited abilities). 

Note: under no circumstance can the use of FSD keep you from a potential impaired driving charge if you are over the legal limit or intoxicated. You are still the operator and if caught you will get your day in court.    

What does the average drive look like? As I drive to town from Vesuvius, the software recognizes speed limit signs and follows them. Especially important are playground zones.  It sees stop signs and stops (something humans rarely do), signals turns approaching intersections, and after ensuring it is safe to do so, completes the turn and accelerates at a reasonable pace. It follows cars in traffic at an appropriate distance (one of the many attributes that are adjustable to your personal preference).  It especially recognized the wonderful new 30 km/h zone signs in Ganges. It even does reasonably well on our narrow unlined roads and seems to love driving in darkness. When I discuss the state of the software with the other Salt Spring Island beta testers, we agree that the current version is impressive, but FSD is a very tough problem and much more refinement is required.  

This, to me, is the most interesting use of Artificial Intelligence I have encountered.  It is actually very cool (and a bit creepy) to feel the car do its decision making while I hold the steering wheel.  It takes a bit of getting used to. 

If you want to see a shocking video of a Tesla in FSD mode saving the lives of the occupants of a car by preventing it from entering an intersection when an unseen car is running a red light, google “Tesla Intersection saved lives.”  

I have yet to be pulled over by our local friendly RCMP while FSD is engaged but I am ready to say I was not driving. I wonder how that will go?


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