Tesla’s Risk Equation

One of the big dichotomies in the autonomous driving world is between companies targeting Level 3 autonomy and those jumping right to Level 4.

Basically, this is the distinction between vehicles in which the driver has to be ready to take control at any moment (Level 3) and vehicles in which the driver can safely tune out (Level 4).

This situation is made somewhat more confusing than necessary by the fact that the US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has put out a 6-level autonomy classification chart, and the Society of Automotive Engineers has put out a 5-level chart. In both cases Level 3 has similar, but slightly distinct, definitions.

That is the context for Volvo’s ongoing criticism of Tesla’s autopilot strategy, most recently enunciated by Volvo R&D Chief Peter Mertens in The Drive.

Every time I drive (Autopilot), I’m convinced it’s trying to kill me…Anyone who moves too early is risking the entire autonomous industry.

That last part is an interesting externalities problem. For every autonomous mile driven, in any car, there is a small but non-zero chance of a fatal accident.

There is a risk that a fatal accident, particularly a rather gruesome one, might prompt regulators to clamp down on autonomous vehicle technology and research, across all manufacturers.

In that case, by launching its autonomous technology so aggressively, it is taking a risk for which it reaps the reward but only partially shares in the cost.

I’m not sure that’s an ironclad argument — after all, at some point, some automaker will have to release autonomous technology to the public. So why not Tesla, and why not now?

But a lot of people, most vocally at Volvo, are worried Tesla is doing this too early and too aggressively, and Volvo isn’t happy about the risk Tesla is foisting on the rest of the industry.

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