Innovation

Why the US government should take Tesla up on its offer to share Autopilot data

One of the leaders of the autonomous driving movement is willing to share data it has collected from over 780 million Tesla Autopilot miles. Experts say the US Department of Transportation should 'jump on' the offer.

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Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

At a recent shareholder meeting, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that the company is willing to share information collected from Autopilot-enabled vehicles with the US Department of Transportation.

Furthermore, Musk "[doesn't] have any issues with them sharing that with other manufacturers," as well. "We want to be helpful," he said.

The information, culled from 70,000 Tesla drivers, includes data from more than 780 million miles—100 million of which were driven with Autopilot activated. The information could be used to help craft safety regulations for autonomous driving.

While the proposition was informal, the Department of Transportation, said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina who specializes in legal aspects of autonomous driving, "should absolutely jump at Tesla's offer."

This kind of data, Smith said, is invaluable—and all kinds of organizations should be involved in sharing their information. "Government vehicles could also give us tremendous insight into the performance of drivers, vehicles, and roadways," he said.

SEE: Photos: A list of the world's self-driving cars racing toward 2020

Why is the data so important? "We know appallingly little about an activity that we do so much, and that kills so many," he said. Compare this, he said, to the way we investigate aviation accidents—and imagine what insights we could learn if we applied the same resources to driving.

"Tesla's data offer a tremendous opportunity to start understanding the driving environment that today's human drivers are navigating and tomorrow's computer drivers will need to navigate," said Smith. "These data can help developers of these systems make, and regulators evaluate, arguments about the safety of these systems."

It is also important, though difficult, to ensure that the data remains anonymized, Smith said. While certain states have laws stating that drivers own the data from their vehicles, under the terms of many automakers' privacy policies are caveats for sharing the information with insurance providers or using it for other purposes. Like cell phone data, said Walker Smith, who owns car data can be a murky area.

Professor John Dolan, principal systems scientist in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said that Tesla's data, in terms of mileage, is "extremely impressive, and nearly two orders of magnitude greater than the number of autonomously driven miles (1.5 million) reported for the Google self-driving cars."

SEE: Tesla's Elon Musk hints Model 3 will be fully autonomous (ZDNet)

Still, Dolan wonders how directly relatable to autonomous driving Tesla's Autopilot data is. While Musk cites a 50% drop in accidents, based on his data, the fact that Autopilot asks drivers to be fully engaged means that accidents may be averted based on human intervention. While the driving may be safer than self-driving, Dolan wonders if it's "a fair comparison between straight human driving and Autopilot driving with presumably highly (perhaps unusually) attentive human overwatch."

It's also unclear, said Dolan, what kind of data regulators are interested in. While it informs safety, Dolan said he "doubts that the provided data provide much impetus for the regulatory approval of Level 4 [fully-autonomous] driving."

"The volume of the data, and Tesla's making the data available are significant actions along a path to self-driving verification and validation," said Dolan. "But caveats need to be considered."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told TechRepublic that they are currently working on automated vehicle guidance, which will be released this summer, and would not comment on the Tesla offer. According to a Bryan Thomas, communications director at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they will be able to "discuss things like data sharing more" at that point.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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