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A Tesla-Robot ‘Crash’ Stunt Shows We Need Robocar Schooling

On Monday, the opening day of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, tragedy struck. Or didn’t. According to a Russian robotics company, one of its humanoid products was toodling on its way to its exhibit when it was hit by a Tesla Model S in “full self-driving capability.” Poor "Promobot" will never recover, the company wrote in a press release, later reported on by a handful of publications, tabloids, and blogs. It said the police were investigating in the incident.

Or weren’t. Aden Ocampo Gomez, a public information officer with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said he couldn’t find any record of such an incident. And anyway, he says, the department "doesn't report that kind of incident on private property.”

If you’re thinking that this might have been a publicity stunt, well, so are lots of people. Teslas don’t have a “full self-driving” mode. Autopilot, the automaker’s semiautonomous system, is made for highways, not the sort of private road shown in a video of the alleged crash published by the robotics company. Promobot seems to start falling over just a moment before the car gets to it. And that video appears to show a rope snaking away from the incident—the sort that could be used, say, to pull down a robot that hadn’t been hit by a car at all. The company, also called Promobot, did not respond to a request for comment. Tesla declined to comment.

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In the vast madness of CES, publicity stunts are de rigeur. What's striking about this one is that it played on a criticism of Elon Musk's ever-in-the-headlines company: that Tesla doesn't do enough to ensure its customers know the limitations of Autopilot, which needs constant human supervision. And research shows that the general public is rather confused about what "self-driving" means in different contexts.

So it's auspicious that elsewhere in Vegas, a handful of those actually involved in the self-driving industry were gearing up to fight exactly the sort of robotic misconceptions that made the company’s story so very sexy. On Monday, a group of automated vehicle developers, suppliers, and advocacy groups rolled out a new coalition for public education on automated vehicles, called the Partnership for Automated Vehicle Education, or PAVE.

“Media interest is picking up, public attention is dialing in, and people are, understandably, a bit confused,” Kyle Vogt, chief technology officer at the AV developer Cruise, said of automated vehicle technology in a press conference Monday. (Cruise and its parent company, General Motors, are members of the coalition.) “There’s a lot misinformation floating around, and it’s on all of us, especially this group here, to help correct that.”

Indeed: Contrary to commentary, headlines, and marketing from the tech developers themselves, there are zero self-driving cars available for purchase today. Similarly, there are zero self-driving cars ferrying passengers around—even Waymo still has safety drivers in the vehicles’ front seats, monitoring the technology for hiccups. (The company says it has tested some totally self-driving vehicles in Arizona, without anyone behind the wheel, but hasn’t put members of the public in them yet.) But here’s the confusing part: Carmakers like Audi, GM, and Nissan do offer advanced driver assistance features that keep the car in its lane and away from other vehicles—which can feel a whole lot like the car is driving itself. Research indicates these systems can and do make driving much safer—but that consumers aren’t always sure about their limitations, or how they work.

According to its website, PAVE is meant to “ inform and educate the public and policymakers on the facts regarding driverless vehicles so that they can fully participate in shaping the future of our roads and highways.” The coalition involves a number of self-driving developers (Audi, Aurora, Waymo, Toyota, Voyage, Zoox), carmakers (VW, Daimler), suppliers (Nvidia, Mobileye, Intel, Inrix) industry organizations (the Society of Automotive Engineers, the American Public Transportation Association, the US Chamber of Commerce) and advocacy groups (the National Federation of the Blind, the Council on Aging, Securing America’s Energy Future).

Deborah Hersman, the current president of the National Safety Coalition and the incoming head of safety at Waymo, stressed Monday that the group was not formed to lobby governments, but to actually teach people about how self-driving works. “Policymakers and the public must be informed about the real benefits and limitations of automated vehicles,” she said Monday.

The group aims to create educational materials for dealers who, according to research and reports, have had a hard time explaining the capabilities of the advanced driver assistance features available in passenger vehicles today. It says it will set up “hands on” demos for the public and policymakers, so people can actually get into the developing tech and understand how it works. It says it will partner with academic institutions to give policymakers opportunities to learn. Gordon Trowbridge, a spokesperson for PAVE, says details on these efforts are slated to be released in the next few months.

Since a testing self-driving Uber hit and killed a pedestrian nearly a year ago, surveys suggest that regular people are a bit freaked out by the technology. (Undoubtedly, this latent fear is partly why the robotic company’s story got media attention. Also, robot on robot violence is fun.) Lawmakers are, too: the fatal crash brought federal legislation that would have guided the development of self-driving vehicles screeching to stop. It still hasn’t passed. So there is great incentive for the industry to teach people about what it's doing. And hopefully no more robots have to fake their own murders for everyone to start paying attention.

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