Friday, February 18, 2022

A self-driving car rant surprisingly not about Tesla

From Jason Torchinsky writing (for the moment) in Jalopnik:

A New York Times writer named Farhad Manjoo — who I’m sure is a fantastic person in many rich and varied ways — recently found a way to, under the cover of journalism, snag a sweet, comfortable Cadillac Escalade for a family road trip. No shame there, I’ve done basically the same thing.

I too am certain that Manjoo is a great guy in many ways, but I've seen him screw up pieces about autonomous vehicles, climate change. housing, electoral data, and the butterfly effect or, in other words, pretty much everything of his I've read in the NYT.

None of which has had any adverse effects on his career. Like David Brooks, Manjoo is a slick writer who, while often wrong, is generally wrong in the right way as far as his superiors at the NYT are concerned. The paper is notorious for turning a deaf ear to critics, particularly when they like the stories you're telling and the tone you maintain.

With this story, though, Manjoo failed to read the room in a big way. Serious automotive and technology writers (not to mention regulators) including the NYT's own very good Neal Boudette have gotten increasingly concerned about autonowashing, exaggeration of "self-driving" capabilities leading to dangerous abuse of driver assistance systems. Elon Musk is the biggest offender here, but he's been helped by countless puff pieces over the years. Recently, however, the tide has been turning.

There’s a problem, though. The article about this road trip that appeared in the NYT today is absolutely jam-packed with mischaracterizations about GM’s Level 2 semi-automated driver assist system, Super Cruise, and, really, all L2 driver assist systems, that I think the result is genuinely dangerous.

The problems start right from the title of the article, “My Big Fat Self-Driving Road Trip,” which I guess is a reference to those My Big Fat Greek Wedding movies, but I don’t really get why, as there’s nothing Greek or matrimonial or even fat involved here. But that’s not the real problem with the headline; the real problem is the use of the term “self-driving.”

This term is a huge problem because it’s not just wrong, it’s dangerously wrong. That Escalade was very much not a self-driving car. While there were clearly many times when it seemed like a self-driving car, it in no way at all is.

Look, a Furby may seem like its trying to communicate with you, but if you extrapolate that to believe that it’s alive and capable of reciprocating your love, then you’ll be very disappointed. An Escalade with Super Cruise is similar, in that it seems like it’s driving itself at times, but if you extrapolate that to believe it really is, then you could end up in a really bad situation that could leave people dead.

Manjoo's story prompted a big negative reaction, and we all know how well the New York Times deals with criticism.

More from Torchinsky:

Let’s just pull that quote out of the tweet there so we can really drink it in, why not:

“In short, although the auto industry may distinguish between advanced driver-assistance systems and autonomous or self-driving vehicles, most people do not, and we do not expect them to.”

This approach is, to couch it in genteel terms, fucking terrible. Okay, NYT, even if you “do not expect” people to know the difference between advanced driver-assistance systems and self-driving vehicles, isn’t kind of part of your whole point of being to, you know, inform people?


I get that it’s the Opinion page, and the NYT Opinion page has a rich, proud history of being composed of compressed blocks of absolute sewage. But this is is not a matter of simple semantics. The differences between a full self-driving system and an advanced driver assist system are not a matter of opinion.

If you work for the NYT and you’d like to know what the actual distinctions are—so as to you know, not put people in mortal danger — then let me help by clarifying the differences between a full self-driving system that you will find on precisely zero (0) cars for sale to day, and an Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) that you’ll find on many vehicles today, from Ford to Cadillac to Volvo to Tesla and more.

Here’s the key piece of information: an ADAS (Advanced Driver Assist System) does not allow the car drive itself. With these systems, also called Level 2 semi-automated systems, the person in the driver’s seat is in constant control of the car. It’s like cruise control.

An ADAS system may require the driver to take total control at any time, possibly with no warning at all. As a result, the driver’s attention needs to remain focused on the road, what the car is doing, the overall situation at all times, just like they were driving, only that task has been changed from the usual active task of driving into a vigilance task of monitoring how the machine is driving, and remaining ready to intercede.

This sort of vigilance task is, by the way, the kind of things humans generally suck at doing.

I reached out to the same @NYTopinion copy chief myself asking them to talk about this, but have yet to get a response.

So, New York Times Opinion page, I’ll just tell you what I was going to say right here: you have to do better than this. You are correct that the general public is confused about the differences between ADAS systems and full self-driving, and part of why is because sloppy bullshit about these technologies keeps getting written and published, some of it right on your pages.

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