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Tesla should keep at it with autonomous cars

Tesla is one of the champions of autonomously guided cars

THE LIST of inappropriate things to do during a Harry Potter movie isn’t very long.

My contribution to the ranking happened during a screening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in one of those old-fashioned cinemas that stops for refreshment intervals mid-flick. The brick-like Nokia in my coat pocket buzzed and – in a moment straight out of Trigger Happy TV – I answered it and rather loudly described to a mate how rubbish I thought the film was. Offending about 60 nearby children in the process.

But it turns out becoming a cinematic pariah is a fairly safe thing to do during a Harry Potter film. Driving a Tesla while watching one, as you might have seen in the news last week, apparently isn’t.

The story – the Tesla incident, not JK Rowling’s fictitious wizard – goes that a chap driving a Model S was so confident of the electric luxury saloon’s autonomous driving mode that he allegedly fired up the in-car TV screen for a quick diversion to Hogwarts. Back in the real world a lorry pulled out in front of his car, and – according to Tesla’s statement on its own website – neither he nor the car’s autopilot picked out the truck’s white trailer against a brightly lit sky in time.

It is – like any fatal car accident – a tragedy that should be learned from in order to reduce the chances of it happening again. The difference is that this one puts the question of how much trust you’re prepared to put into self-driving cars in a whole new perspective.

Only a few weeks ago I argued autonomous cars were a belting idea, and even after this horrific accident I’d still argue the idea has potential. But to suggest that taking drivers out of the picture will spell the end of car accidents is dangerously naïve.

Think about how many times you’re being flown somewhere on autopilot. The chances of being involved in a crash are miniscule compared to being injured or killed in car – even more so when you discount the air crashes that are caused by human error – but there’s still a very remote chance something will happen. Regardless of whether it’s you or the electronics dictating the drive it’s impossible to eliminate the risk completely.

Both the Tesla accident and a crash between one of Google’s self-driving cars and a bus back in March show there’s a lot more work to be done before you can hire your Ford Focus as its own chauffeur. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

If you do like your Harry Potter films, I’d suggest sticking to your sofa for now.

Originally published in the 13 July edition of The Champion

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