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What the Tech: Tesla’s “assertive” self-driving mode could be a recipe for disaster

Tesla has added an “assertive mode” to it’s Self-Driving Beta, but the last thing we need is aggressive autonomous vehicles on our roads.

Approximately 1.3 million people die every year as a result of road traffic accidents (according to the World Health Organisation). Sobering statistics such as these often lead us to wonder whether technology could replace the human error that often results in fatalities behind the wheel, potentially saving many of those lives that would have otherwise been needlessly lost.

One such car company at the leading edge of this kind of innovation has been Tesla, and having already introduced its Autopilot feature to cars, the brand is currently developing its Self-Driving capabilities (which still requires a driver’s supervision, but is a move towards being more fully autonomous).

While some previews of such tech have been invigorating to see, it certainly hasn’t been without its teething problems; just recently it was discovered by Consumer Reports that Tesla’s autopilot could be tricked into working without anyone behind the wheel. Of course it’s scary when such findings are made, but it is also understandable that nothing will be perfect on the first go; it’s through mistakes, even dangerous ones, that flaws are ironed out and new technologies can be perfected.

Less forgivable, though, is news from this week that Tesla’s Self-Driving Beta software includes a so-called “assertive mode” (that is, the option to programme your self-driving car to be more aggressive on the road). Such characteristics of this choice include the car’s propensity to have a smaller follow distance, make more frequent speed lane changes, and perform ‘rolling stops’ (i.e., not bring the car to a full halt at traffic lights).

It’s frustrating to see this kind of cynicism behind the curtain of self-driving tech; the entire point of this kind of tech is to do away with petty, aggressive, and unsafe driving, rather than encouraging it or even doing it for you. This might come as news to drivers of luxury car brands, who seem to believe the road functions as little more than a glorified showroom for their vehicle — even apparently when they’re not in full control of it — but other drivers’ feelings of safety and security are of essential importance to the overall harmony of the traffic.

Everyone in a car has a right to be on the road, and has a right to feel safe while they’re there. Self-driving technology potentially has the ability to realise this second point more fully than ever before, and reduce the depressingly high toll of accidents on the road; but if it can be programmed to be just as unthoughtful and intimidating as any real human driver, then it can no longer be deemed a true tool for safety and instead is just yet another way to show off at the expense of the rest of us.