As Ford prepares to launch its Mustang Mach-E electric car, the first in its portfolio to take advantage of a new highway semi-self driving suite, its executives are making the case for a cautious approach to autonomy in the personal vehicle space — citing safety as the primary driver behind both developing the technology and keeping it in check.
Scott Griffith, who oversees Ford's autonomy and mobility division, made his case on Medium Tuesday in a post unequivocally titled, "Playing it Safe. There is no other way to launch self-driving cars." In this, Ford joins the likes of Daimler, Volkswagen, General Motors and others in what is effectively a repudiation of Tesla's ambitious (and, as some have argued, misleading) public roll-out of the "Full Self Driving" variant of its Autopilot system.
"Over the last several decades, Ford and the rest of the auto industry have spent a vast amount of resources developing robust, comprehensive processes to ensure we design and deploy safe vehicles, because we care about the safety of our customers," Griffith said.
Most discussion of autonomous and semi-autonomous tech fundamentally boils down to the notion that in order for the public to widely accept these systems, the risks inherent to the technology need to be far smaller than those posed by the unreliability inherent to human drivers. Until that is the case, potential buyers will be more likely to trust human judgment over that of a computer's.
"That’s one area we’re aiming to improve our understanding — learning lessons from the very best human drivers and turning those lessons into algorithms that can be deployed on self-driving cars," Griffith said. "That way we can ensure that if there is an unexpectedly icy road or a pedestrian that suddenly steps out into traffic, the car can very reliably use all the friction on the road to help move out of harm’s way.
"Of course, there’s a very obvious distinction between vehicles with humans at the helm and those without," he said. "Vehicles driven by humans have been fine-tuned and enhanced over time to help improve driver behavior, but the challenge for self-driving cars will be to manage all driving operations on their own — making decisions and performing maneuvers to navigate through numerous scenarios."
"Just as decades of experience have given us safe and reliable development processes for human-driven cars, we need to draw upon that experience and develop the same processes for self-driving ones," Griffith said.
Daimler, along with Volkswagen, BMW, FCA, Continental and several other automotive and tech firms co-authored a white paper in 2019 titled "Safety First for Automated Driving," which suggested that the industry needs to come down well beyond that tipping point, referring to the concept as a "positive risk balance." Mercedes-Benz plans to release its Drive Pilot system to wider audiences next year.
"Introducing automated driving poses great potential for reducing crash rates. However, there are also major challenges in realizing the full safety benefit of automated driving in order to achieve the target of a 'positive risk balance compared to human driving performance', as recommended by the German Ethics Commission," it said.
The benefits of this approach have already been proven to some degree by GM, whose Super Cruise suite received higher marks from Consumer Reports than Tesla's Autopilot. GM plans to expand the tech to its entire lineup in the coming years.
Griffith's post goes into other aspects of the technological and ethical obstacles to autonomy, and we'd encourage you to read it in its entirety.