“Some people look at it and say, ‘Oh this crazy dad, what is he doing?'” Cupani told CNN Business. “Well, I do a lot of stuff like that, but I’m going to make sure my kid doesn’t get hit.”
But it also is yet another example of the unintended consequence of deploying an unfinished, disruptive technology in the wild — and shows how far some Tesla believers are willing to go to defend it and the company. Enough people appeared to be pursuing their own experiments that one government agency took the extraordinary step of warning people not to use children to test a car’s technology.
“Consumers should never attempt to create their own test scenarios or use real people, and especially children to test the performance of vehicle technology,” NHTSA said in a statement Wednesday. The agency called this approach “highly dangerous.”
Earlier this month, California resident Tad Park saw that another Tesla enthusiast wanted to test “full self-driving” with a child, and volunteered two of his children. Park told CNN Business it was a “little tough” to get his wife to agree. She agreed when he promised to drive the vehicle.
“I’m never going to push the limits because my kids are way more valuable to me than anything,” Park said. “I’m not going to risk their lives in any way.”
His Tesla slowed as it approached “box boy.” Then it sped up again and struck his cardboard mannequin. Cadamuro speculated that this could be because the cameras could not see the short boxes once they were immediately in front of the bumper, and therefore forget they were there.
Cadamuro said his video started as entertainment. But he wanted people to see that “full self-driving” isn’t perfect.
“I find a lot of people have two extreme thoughts of the ‘full self-driving’ beta,” Cadamuro said. “People like Dan think it’s the worst thing in the world. I know some friends who think it’s near perfect.”
Cadamuro said he also performed other tests in which his Tesla, traveling at higher speeds, effectively steered around “box boy.”
Detecting smaller objects like young children quickly and accurately will generally be more difficult than sensing large objects and adults for a computer vision system like what Tesla vehicles rely on, according to Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who researches autonomous vehicles.
The more pixels an object takes up in a camera image, the more information the system has to detect features and identify the object. The system will also be impacted by the data it is trained on, such as how many images of small children it’s exposed to.
“Computer vision with machine learning is not 100% foolproof,” Rajkumar said. “Just like diagnosis of a disease, there are always false positives and negatives.”
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment and generally does not engage with the professional news media.
“Wild West chaos rules”
Some Tesla supporters had criticized O’Dowd’s use of cones as lane markings in his original testing, which may have limited the sedan’s ability to steer around the mannequin. Others claimed that O’Dowd’s test driver had forced the Tesla to strike the mannequin by pushing the accelerator, which wasn’t visible in videos O’Dowd released. Some Tesla enthusiasts also pointed to a blurry messages on the screen of the Tesla vehicle as an indication that O’Dowd’s test driver was pushing the accelerator to rig the tests.
O’Dowd told CNN Business that the blurry messages referred to supercharging being unavailable, and to uneven tire wear. CNN Business could not independently verify what the message said as O’Dowd provided no crisper video of what happened in car during the tests.
O’Dowd is the founder of the Dawn Project, an effort to make computers safe for humanity. He ran as a candidate for the US Senate unsuccessfully this year in a campaign focused exclusively on his critique of “full self-driving.”
NHTSA is currently investigating Tesla’s driver-assist technology so changes may be ahead.
“The software that controls billions of people’s lives in self-driving cars should be the best software ever written,” O’Dowd said. “We’re using absolute, Wild West chaos rules and we’ve gotten something that is so terrible.”