Is All Driver Input Error? It Depends On How You Orient Your Sensory Input

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“We’ve gotten rid of the stalks,” Elon Musk recently said at the Plaid Delivery Event. “I think generally, all input is error.” He went on to say, “If you have to do something that the car could have done already, that should be taken care of. The software should just do it.”

The Tesla Philosophy

Musk’s words really laid out a key part of Tesla’s ultra-minimalist design philosophy. Not only is the company getting rid of the stalks for turn signal, autopilot, windshield washer, and selecting a drive mode, but itis also getting rid of the need for the driver to even do some of those things. And really, this is just an extension of the Autopilot and Full Self Driving concept — make the car do as much as it can and let the people inside relax in luxury whenever technologically possible.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean the vehicles aren’t capable of doing some very impressive high performance driving, especially when one considers their hulking weights. They’re clearly becoming a real competitor in the performance and racing scene, and that’s increasingly happening outside of the quarter-mile.

Why Legacy Enthusiasts Aren’t Liking This

The difference between Tesla’s philosophy and what gearheads like myself tend to like isn’t a matter of performance figures. The real issue, as Jason Torchinsky at Jalopnik explained, is the driver experience (or lack thereof). “It’s literally the expression of what you want to do. Suggesting that input is error suggests a lack of respect or even an outright contempt for the human beings that choose to drive the car you’re trying to sell,” Torchinsky said.

In his article, he also explained that he thinks it’s a serious error on Tesla’s part to adopt this philosophy because it leaves out the most fun experiences he’s had in cars. For him, the best cars were ones that were all about input, to the point where they felt like a prosthesis. Those cars were all about input, and they put the driver in control of nearly everything, with unfiltered feedback coming back from them as much as safely possible.

To enthusiasts, input isn’t error. It’s not a sign that engineers could have done more to help. It’s the whole point of driving, to give the car inputs and feel outputs.

The OODA Loop

The decision to take control away and put it in the hands of a helpful neural net bothers old school enthusiasts because it robs them of their usual participation in decision-result feedback loops. Enthusiasts often like manual transmissions because they give that much more input and feedback, making the car feel more like an extension of one’s self. The idea of not only eliminating the third pedal, but eliminating all manual control over the gear selection experience isn’t a nice thing for people who want that input-feedback loop experience.

Diagram of John Boyd’s OODA loop concept. Image by Patrick Edward Moran, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

One of the best analyses around for this mental process is USAF Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop. Boyd was a disruptive innovator in the military during the second half of the 20th Century, and often was the spoiler of wrong-headed military establishment thinking. Not only did his ideas on quick action lead to the F-16 and F/A-18, but they also led to the influential Military Reform movement and the very effective fighting in the Gulf War.

This OODA concept is based on the following:

  • Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem: any logical model of reality is incomplete (and possibly inconsistent) and must be continuously refined/adapted in the face of new observations.
  • Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: there is a limit on one’s ability to observe reality with precision.
  • Second Law of Thermodynamics: the entropy of any closed system always tends to increase and thus the nature of any given system continuously changes even as efforts are directed toward maintaining it in its original form.

Failure to quickly process OODA loops with reasonable accuracy (when compared to reality) can kill a country, a military force, a private company like Tesla, or even an individual facing a life-threatening situation.

We Don’t All Orient Our Sensory Inputs The Same Way

I wouldn’t go as far as Jason Torchinsky did (calling Elon Musk’s statement an example of “what’s wrong with Tesla”), but I see where he’s coming from because I come from a similar automotive background. I grew up working on cars, and getting intimately familiar with the machines I was driving. In my favorite vehicles, there were no systems that I didn’t understand and few that I hadn’t personally done something to improve, study, or repair at some point.

It was only after being immersed in this culture of motoring for decades that I got bit by the electric bug. Even then, it wasn’t long before I started tinkering with vehicles like the 2011 Nissan LEAF and 2013 Chevy Volt I owned. I made sure I was very familiar with the systems in each vehicle and knew how to get the most out of them.

Many of Tesla’s biggest fans (definitely not all, but enough to merit talking about) have a different experience with cars. They’re transportation appliances, meant to get a person from A to B. The idea of having to drive manual is either seen as a big inconvenience or something they just don’t know how to do, and have no interest in learning. Living in a city with traffic, driving is more of a chore than a fun thing to do that makes one feel independent.

A car that drives itself and manages the vagaries of traffic while one does other things seems like a great idea to people with that automotive background. Admittedly, I’ve used SAE Level 2 systems in traffic jams, and it’s kind of nice, so even I get it.

It all really comes down to that second box of the OODA loop. When cultural traditions and prior experience differ so much, we can expect people to react differently to the same inputs and make different decisions. People who were acculturated to like driving will like driving, even when it sucks. Other people who hate driving, or hate most driving, will want to let the machine do the work while they play video games, sleep more, or work.

No Wrong Answer Here

I feel like there’s no wrong answer here. Some people will want a car that follows the minimalist and automated Tesla approach. Other people will want to have more of a Space Shuttle cockpit experience, with as much input and information, controls, and interaction with the machine as they can get.

I’m not going to take a side and say some of you are wrong. What’s right for me and what’s right for you will differ, and that’s OK.

Featured image: The cockpit of a Space Shuttle. Photo by NASA (public domain).


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