Self-driving cars, once thought to be part of the far-off future, are on Miami Valley highways now, and most motorists and even law enforcement are unaware.
“Most of the people I tell about it have no idea that it even exists. Nobody can believe it,” said Kent Crabtree of Englewood, who got his $70,000 Tesla Model S 90D with autopilot in mid-December.
There are 100,000 Tesla vehicles worldwide with autopilot capability right now, Tesla Motors communications representative Alexis Georgeson said in an email.
“Up until about 24 hours ago, I didn’t realize those were even on the roadways in our area,” said Sgt. Jeff Kramer with the Dayton post of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. “It’s a little bit concerning, alarming, to us.”
The autopilot feature comes standard in Model S and Model X Tesla vehicles built since September 2014 and was made available to all other models through a software download late last year, according to Georgeson.
Other automakers are jumping on the the self-driving car phenomenon, investing billions to perfect their own forms of the technology.
On Thursday, Renault-Nissan announced plans to phase in self-driving vehicles by 2018.
General Motors announced on Monday it is investing $500 million in ride-hailing Lyft to create a fleet of self-driving cars.
At the Consumer Electronics Show last week, Kia announced it will introduce a partially autonomous vehicle by 2020, with a completely self-driving car available in 2030.
Google predicts its self-driving car will be available for purchase in 2020.
The Tesla autopilot uses a unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to brake, accelerate and steer the vehicle, even during lane changes, and is for use only during highway driving, for now.
“It doesn’t recognize stop signs, traffic lights or anything like that. It does not avoid potholes, either,” said Crabtree.
He demonstrated how a simple double pull of the turn signal puts the vehicle in control.
“We are on autopilot. I just took my foot away from the accelerator and the car is actually steering itself,” Crabtree said as he took his hands off the wheel as he “drove” down I-70 West at 70 mph.
The driver sets how many car-lengths the vehicle stays behind the vehicle in front of it.
“At first, I was pretty nervous. Now, I’m not nervous with it. I do like to know that I’ve driven the road first. I think it’s a great thing, because it actually relieves the strain of driving. When you have other distractions in the car, it’s nice to know that it’s watching out for you,” said Crabtree.
The software reads the painted lines on the roadway to steer the vehicle and will sometimes drift toward an exit ramp when there are no lines, eventually correcting itself, explained Crabtree.
If the vehicle can’t read the painted lines, due to rain or snow, or if the driver hasn’t touched the steering wheel in a while, the vehicle will alert the driver to take the wheel, said Crabtree.
If the driver doesn’t?
“The car will put on the hazard lights, turn on the turn signal, and park you,” said Crabtree.
To change lanes, Crabtree simply turned on the turn signal.
The vehicle waited several seconds — checking to make sure all was clear, according to Crabtree — then smoothly made the switch.
To disengage autopilot, Crabtree put his hands back on the steering wheel and gave it a slight turn.
“You are not out of control. All you have to do to kick the system off, you just grab the wheel,” said Crabtree.
“I would encourage people to not fully trust this system just yet, it’s not time tested,” said Sgt. Kramer, “it’s not for you to just go about your business and forget about driving. You are still responsible for that vehicle.”
He said safety is a top priority and drivers of these vehicles need to keep their hands on the steering wheel and their eyes on the road.
Kramer also said he anticipates a lot of calls from concerned motorists who are unaware that these vehicles are already on the highways.
“I can only imagine somebody driving down the road next to a vehicle that’s using this type of auto drive. Somebody looking over and seeing somebody completely hands off the steering wheel, head down, doing something else inside the vehicle, it is going to cause a lot of alarm and concern to people,” Kramer said.
He said that if these self-driving cars prove themselves as safe, it will be a welcome development.
“If technology reduces fatal crashes, or crashes in general, we will gladly accept that and we look forward to that. We’ll be ready and we’ll do what we can to make it safer,” Kramer said.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)