In May, a Tesla “autopilot” enthusiast in Florida became the first known fatality in a self-driving car. But this was no ordinary accident. The car performed exactly as designed, and the (non)driver’s failure to take any corrective action could reasonably have been foreseen by the manufacturer. This unwelcome yet widely anticipated milestone may set back progress on what promises to be one of the most valuable technologies of the 21st century.
In its rush to get hot new products into consumers’ hands, Tesla—along with many other car manufacturers—has pursued a flawed vision of the future, one in which tomorrow’s technology is simply layered on top of today’s. As with the “horseless carriages” of the early 1900s, which at first were merely added to the jumble of pedestrians and carts swarming through the streets, the real benefits of the new technology won’t be realized until we see substantial changes in our transportation infrastructure.