Tesla is taking another big step in its attempt to be the leader in the race toward autonomy. The tech company announced late Wednesday, just before the much-anticipated third presidential debate, that all of its cars currently being produced will have the needed hardware for full autonomous capability. Tesla cars will be the first to include self-driving hardware. Other companies, such as Google, Ford, and Volvo, have said they will have full autonomous ability by early next decade.
On Thursday, the California-based company posted a video of a Tesla traveling through urban streets with the driver not putting his hands on the steering wheel. The viewer can see the driver keeping his hands off and the wheel rotating on its own. At the beginning of the video, the following statement appears: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not driving anything. The car is driving itself.”
Even though the hardware is being put in place, the software is not yet ready and has also not received regulatory approval. The Tesla cars with new hardware will not include Autopilot, which is a feature in current Teslas and includes automatic emergency braking, collision warning, lane holding, and active cruise control. The company will update customer software over-the-air to enable more features.
“It will take us some time into the future to complete validation of the software and to get the required regulatory approval, but the important thing is that the foundation is laid for the cars to be fully autonomous at a safety level we believe to be at least twice that of a person, maybe better.”
Here’s what Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk said on Wednesday: “It will take us some time into the future to complete validation of the software and to get the required regulatory approval, but the important thing is that the foundation is laid for the cars to be fully autonomous at a safety level we believe to be at least twice that of a person, maybe better.” It’s curious why Tesla dropped its news when it did, soon before the presidential debate. By making the announcement at that time, Tesla wasn’t garnering as much attention as it would during a slower news cycle. Musk yesterday did express his disdain with the press for focusing too much on Tesla accidents instead of the overwhelming safety advantages from self-driving cars. “If you’re dissuading people from autonomous driving, you’re killing people,” he said on a conference call with reporters.
Rollout of autonomy should be cautionary
Currently, Tesla’s cars include semi-autonomous features such as Autopilot, which allows the driver to disengage and let the vehicle drive itself. Given the controversy surrounding the Autopilot feature after it was possibly at fault for a deadly accident earlier this year, the recent announcement that all of the company’s vehicles will have fully autonomous hardware will likely stir up even more debate. The big question will be: Is the transition to autonomy occurring too rapidly? Under Tesla’s timeline, vehicles currently produced will be fully autonomous by 2018, although it is unclear if the company will meet its goals due to regulatory issues and consumer timidity.
The main narrative from supporters of autonomy is that the vehicles will ultimately be safer than traditional ones, and Tesla argues this too: “Full autonomy will enable a Tesla to be substantially safer than a human driver, lower the financial cost of transportation for those who own a car and provide low-cost on-demand mobility for those who do not.” Crucially, some 35,000 die every year because of vehicle accidents, with more than 90 percent of the crashes the result of driver error. This widespread public health crisis can be seriously mitigated through the large-scale adoption of autonomous vehicles.
The danger of technology getting ahead of regulators and consumers is that unfortunate incidents may end up slowing efforts to bring about the deployment of autonomous vehicles.
It’s vital, however, that the new technology isn’t rolled out too quickly. The danger of technology getting ahead of regulators and consumers is that unfortunate incidents, such as the Tesla Autopilot crash earlier this year, will end up slowing efforts to bring about the deployment of autonomous vehicles.
Right now, Tesla is walking a fine line with its semi-autonomous Autopilot feature. When a vehicle has semi-autonomous features such as Autopilot, the car is not fully self-driving—the driver still has some responsibility and will eventually have to take over. This can threaten safety since the motorist may not be able to shift his or her attention fast enough to properly handle the vehicle when necessary. While the inclusion of Autopilot is encouraging for the long run, as improved technology should result in better safety, it has had many critics. They argue that the company has not done enough testing of its semi-autonomous vehicles and training drivers before putting them on the market. Tesla will certainly also come under fire again as it advances its self-driving hardware ahead of other auto and tech companies.
The new hardware consists of eight surround cameras that provide 360-degree visibility around the car, twelve ultrasonic sensors to complement the cameras, a forward-facing radar with enhanced processing to help navigate difficult situations, and an onboard computer with more than 40 times the computing power of the previous generation. “Together, this system provides a view of the world that a driver alone cannot access, seeing in every direction simultaneously and on wavelengths that go far beyond the human senses,” said Tesla.
As car and tech companies move ahead with autonomy, regulators and consumers are coming around on the new technology, but there is still a ways to go. For instance, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued guidance on self-driving vehicles, but they are not official regulations. Regarding consumers, public polling has been mixed, showing that a majority of consumers are skittish about the new technology. Should major vehicle accidents happen with autonomous vehicles in their early stages, they could break the public trust and undermine attempts to make them mainstream. The penetration of self-driving cars into the vehicle fleet appears inevitable at this moment, with the technology happening at a rapid pace, but unforeseen setbacks in the early stages could hurt long-term prospects. That’s why Tesla, along with regulators, consumers, and other companies, should proceed with caution.