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Your Regular Reminder That Fully Self-Driving Cars Don’t Exist Yet

Screenshot YouTube

While we’re on the subject of Super Bowl commercials, there wasn’t just one, but two, that irritated me on Sunday.

This one has little, if anything, to do with politics, so you can relax and cancel out that angry email you were about to send me.

Nope, this one has to do with the misinformation circulating about autonomous cars.

Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, was the spokesman for a spot for Dexcom, a medical-device maker. And in the spot, he said “we’ve got self-driving cars” as he talked about modern technology. The camera cuts to a man riding in a self-driving car, looking relaxed, hands off the wheel.

Nick, I realize you may have been reading from a script and didn’t know this, but we don’t have self-driving cars. At least not yet.

You cannot, as of right now, buy a fully self-driving car from ANY make. No matter what Tesla CEO Elon Musk says about Tesla’s AutoPilot and Full-Self Driving systems. There are test units out there, but nothing that you can buy.

There are, of course, cars that offer some partial self-driving. Like the aforementioned Tesla systems and GM’s SuperCruise. There are plenty of other driver-assist systems that have limited autonomy – systems that might steer you back into your lane if your hands aren’t on the wheel, for example.

But every system on the market today, including AutoPilot and SuperCruise, requires the driver to be ready to take over a moment’s notice and still be focused on the road.

There are five levels of autonomy, with level 5 being full self-driving. Our “best” systems available today are level 2. That includes SuperCruise – which can only be used on certain roads – and AutoPilot. Tesla’s FSD system is in beta testing and there’s some uncertainty over whether it’s level 2 or 3. Musk claims it will be level 5 by the end of this year. We’re skeptical.

You might think a throwaway line in an ad that isn’t about cars doesn’t matter when it comes to discussing autonomous technology. Clearly, the producers of the spot don’t think it does. That is, if they even knew we don’t actually have self-driving cars.

That is exactly the problem. Non-car people mistakenly believe that some cars can drive themselves, and that’s dangerous. All it takes is one Tesla driver who doesn’t understand his car’s tech and you can have a nasty, potentially fatal, vehicle accident.

Musk has been called out for over-selling his cars’ abilities, but it’s not just one pitchman’s fault. Nuance has been lost in the discussion. I bet the average man on the street doesn’t even know there are levels of autonomy.

So when an incredibly famous pop star says off-hand that we have self-driving cars in an ad seen by millions and millions of people during the biggest sporting event of the year, that falsehood can spread unchecked. Not to mention that the ad will be in rotation for a while, further spreading an untruth.

That makes it easy to envision a scenario in which an unscrupulous car salesman oversells the self-driving capabilities of, oh say, Nissan ProPilot, and some poor Rogue driver finds out the hard way that her car can’t drive itself.

Getting this terminology correct matters. When Liberty Mutual couldn’t talk accurately about torque in an ad a few years ago it was harmless. Laughable. “Oh, those idiots couldn’t take two seconds to Google what torque is, haha”.

But when it comes to consumer confusion about an emerging technology – confusion that could lead to safety issues – those with a platform have a responsibility to get it right.

Next time, Dexcom, pick another piece of amazing tech to make your point. May I suggest those self-cleaning cat-litter boxes?

As for everyone else, there are no full self-driving cars for sale today. Not from Tesla, Cadillac, or anyone else. And there won’t be for a while.

Stop saying there are.

[Image: Screenshot via YouTube]




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