Last month in Redwood City, California, Officer Art Montiel of the California Highway Patrol noticed something odd. He saw a car speeding down Highway 101 at 70 miles per hour around 3:40 in the morning and the driver appeared to be asleep. He turned on his lights and sirens, but the car did not slow down. Fortunately, the offending vehicle was a Tesla Model S with autopilot. (While not yet fully autonomous vehicle, the Tesla cars equipped with Enhanced Autopilot software can stay in a traffic lane, maintain their speed, and even slow down or stop when cars, pedestrians, or other obstacles are detected ahead of it. ) The officer radioed for backup and closed the highway behind the errant car. He then pulled ahead of it and slowly reduced his speed. The car behaved as programmed and slowed as well. Eventually, Officer Montiel was able to get the car to stop. The officer later said it took a while to wake the driver. Imagine going for a drive then waking up on the highway with a police officer banging on your window. The driver, a local government official, was arrested for DUI and is now free on bail, pending trial.
Another story involving a car on autopilot did not end as safely. In Williston, Florida, Navy veteran Joshua Brown had his Tesla Model S on Autopilot. A semi-truck was making a turn across a divided highway when the Model S crashed into it. Neither the autopilot system nor the driver saw the white truck against the bright summer sky. The Model S drove right under the trailer, shearing off the top of the Tesla and killing the driver.
Uber was conducting a test drive of their autonomous software when the car struck and killed a woman on a street in Tempe, Arizona. In this case, there was an emergency backup driver behind the wheel; however, she was watching a TV show on her phone instead of keeping her eyes on the road. Although internal cameras documented more than 200 times when she looked away from the road, she denies that she used her phone before calling 911 to report the crash.
In 2014, California enacted regulations to require reporting of every incident involving an autonomous vehicle. Since that time in that state alone there have been 104 such collisions. Forty-nine of those occurred in 2018. Most of these were ruled to be due to human error. A majority of those involved the test car being hit from behind while stopped at a red light, including one by a bicycle. With millions of miles logged in test drives to date, that actually reflects a very low overall percentage. Autonomous cars are getting smarter, better, and safer. Tesla already operates driverless trucks on some highways. It will not be long before taxi drivers go the way of elevator operators.
I was thinking about that driver sleeping behind the wheel and how the cop saved him. How many of us get into our routines and go on autopilot? How many times do we wake up at Aleinu at the end of davening and would be hard-pressed to confirm that we carefully said all of the words in the prayers? Will we wake up after a forty-year career in the workforce and wonder what happened to all of the time? Did we make wise, engaged choices about how to spend our days? Did we “kill” ourselves at work, only to miss out on our children growing up? Sure, we have to make a living, but at what cost are all of the extras?
As I watch my grandkids learning their first words and reaching new milestones, I am reminded of sacrifices I had to make to earn a paycheck. Would I go back and do anything differently if I had the chance? What advice would I give my own kids now if they were to ask me?
There are no time machines and no do-overs in this life. The time to review our priorities and make sure we are focusing on what is truly important is right now, today, in this very moment.