Tesla Has 'Assertive' Self-Driving Mode

If autonomous cars won't follow the rules of the road, who or what will?

Dockless electric cars blocking sidewalk
Dockless electric cars blocking sidewalk.

Drew Angerer/ Getty Images

A few years ago, when self-driving cars seemed to be around the corner (it was promised that they would be common by 2019), we worried about how they would deal with pedestrians in cities. The concern was that if pedestrians knew that the car would always stop for them, then they would just walk in front of them. Robin Hickman of the Bartlett School of Planning noted in an earlier post,

 “In terms of the algorithm for dealing with obstacles that move in unpredictable ways, like cyclists or pedestrians, I would say that’s unsolvable. If a pedestrian knows it’s an automated vehicle, they will just take the priority. It would take you hours to drive down a street in any urban area.”

Now it appears that Tesla has come up with a solution to this problem in its full self-driving beta: an "assertive" mode where the car "may perform rolling stops." This is where it gets interesting. They may not be so friendly and law-abiding because otherwise they will be taken advantage of. As Eric Taub wrote in the New York Times,

"If pedestrians know they’ll never be run over, jaywalking could explode, grinding traffic to a halt. One solution, suggested by an automotive industry official, is gates at each corner, which would periodically open to allow pedestrians to cross."

We previously suggested that the Autonomous Vehicle (AV) industry would bring in new laws, a sort of Jaywalking 2.0, to regulate pedestrians. As Peter Norton wrote in "Fighting Traffic," laws were changed to require that pedestrians yield to motorists. We quoted the book in Pedestrians Will Have to Be "Lawful and Considerate" in a World of Self-Driving Cars:

"Pedestrians must be educated to know that automobiles have rights," said George Graham, auto manufacturer and chairman of the safety committee, National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, in 1924. "We are living in a motor age, and we must have not only motor age education, but a motor age sense of responsibility."
View down on Futurama


Alternatively, we suggested that cities might all have to be grade-separated, as was proposed by Norman Bel Geddes in the 1939 Futurama exhibit.

Rolling stops at stop signs are illegal, but everybody does it. Going over the speed limit is illegal, and I suspect that if a self-driving Tesla were programmed to go the speed limit, then the people in it would be outraged to see every other car zipping past them. It is more likely that an "assertive" Tesla will speed, roll through stop signs, and likely be designed to intimidate pedestrians who step in front of it by stopping fast and up close.

The driver of this Tesla appears to have swerved to avoid another car coming out of the side street, and there is no word on whether it was in any kind of self-driving mode. It certainly was driving aggressively, because that is what humans do.

One of the major claims and justifications for AVs is that they will be safer and reduce the number of crashes. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety isn't so sure that this is true, especially if the cars are programmed to drive more like people instead of robots.

"Planning and deciding errors, such as speeding and illegal maneuvers, were contributing factors in about 40 percent of crashes in the study sample. The fact that deliberate decisions made by drivers can lead to crashes indicates that rider preferences might sometimes conflict with the safety priorities of autonomous vehicles. For self-driving vehicles to live up to their promise of eliminating most crashes, they will have to be designed to focus on safety rather than rider preference when those two are at odds."

That means no rolling stops and no going over the speed limit, even if it is 20 miles per hour on a six-lane road. Anyone who has driven on a road like that knows how hard it is.

It's Time for a Rethink of the Car

It's time that we realized that there are some fundamental issues of human nature here. Walkers are gonna walk and jaywalk, particularly when crossings are hundreds of yards apart. Drivers are gonna drive faster than the speed limit, because that's how the roads are designed and that is what they have always done—and AVs are going to keep up with them. I just don't see how this can work. And it just doesn't seem possible that AVs could manage the complexity and randomness of city streets, which will dramatically reduce their utility.

Then there is the more fundamental issue of whether we should have cars in the city at all. In 2016 we wrote that we don't need self-driving cars, but need to get rid of cars, and quoted author Rebecca Solnit, writing in the Guardian:

"Apple, Tesla, Uber, Google and various auto manufacturers’ pursuit of driverless cars is an attempt to preserve and maybe extend private automobile usage... That’s not the future. That’s dressing up the past. We need people to engage with bicycles, buses, streetcars, trains, and their own feet, to look at ways they can get places without fossil fuel."

Six years later, not much has changed, other than we now have e-bikes, too, another great alternative to the car. In our post, Cities have to be Car-Free in the Future, Say Experts, I noted that 80 million cars were built in 2019, and quoted a study that calculated that just manufacturing those cars was responsible for 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Even if they are all-electric, that's not a number that is consistent with keeping global heating below 2.7 degrees F (1.5 degrees C). And that doesn't include other "direct costs, such as the petrol or electricity they consume, infrastructure and congestion itself, and indirect ones, including road insecurity, the (un)active mobility, the space devoted to cars in cities and others."

Tesla has pretty clearly demonstrated that autonomous cars can't co-exist with cars driven by humans unless they act like cars driven by humans. It's also pretty obvious that electric cars won't save us either if we are serious about limiting global heating; the upfront or embodied emissions from making them all are just too high.

It is also getting to the point where people can't afford cars at all, with them now at 14.1% of the Consumer Price Index.

We have carbon budgets that we have to stay under to control global heating. We have a schedule that says we have to cut emissions almost in half in eight years and almost to zero in 28 years. The awful truth is that, if we are going to get anywhere close to those targets, we can't be chasing autonomous cars or electric cars, but we have to promote alternatives to cars.