Posted on April 14, 2016 by Matt Pressman
With the introduction of self-driving "Autopilot" functionality, Tesla Motors [NASDAQ: TSLA] has become the top-ranked production vehicle boasting industry-leading autonomous driving features. Top automotive publications in the U.S. and U.K. have recently pitted the Tesla Model S against premiere luxury automobiles to find out if Tesla has superior self-driving capabilities. Most recently, Top Gear declared the Tesla Model S P90D the winner over the renowned BMW 730Ld. And in February, Car and Driver crowned the Tesla Model S king of self-driving abilities in a battle versus the BMW 750i, Infiniti Q50S, and Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG. Impressive. But, what about Tesla versus the (supposed) front runner in non-production vehicles, Google [NASDAQ: GOOG]?
First, some background. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has a storied history with Google. According to Ashlee Vance's Elon Musk biography, Google co-founder Larry Page explains that Musk often crashes at his apartment when in Silicon Valley, "He'll e-mail and say, 'I don't know where to stay tonight. Can I come over?" Page says."I haven't given him a key or anything yet." And, the Google founders even meet periodically with Musk at a private location. "It's kind of our recreation, I guess," Page told Vance. "It's fun for the three of us to talk about kind of crazy things, and we find stuff that eventually turns out to be real. We go through hundreds or thousands of possible things before arriving at the ones that are most promising." Most stunning in Vance's book was the author's assertion that Musk almost sold Tesla to Google early on...
Fast forward and the two companies are friendly yet (sort of) competing to become the top player in the self-driving space. A fascinating article by Fred Lambert in Electrek* compares the two companies. Lambert lays out the philosophical differences between Tesla and Google, "The former is incrementally introducing more advanced autonomous features to eventually get to full autonomy, while the latter thinks it is safer to make the jump to completely autonomous driving once the technology is at maturity. The two companies also have different approaches to hardware. Google relies on LiDAR, while Tesla thinks it’s unnecessary and that a combination of cameras and radars should do the job."
Above: Google's total cumulative autonomous miles driven which reached the 1.5 million miles mark last month. Note: all miles thus far have been complied since the beginning of the program in 2009 (Source: Electrek*)
Lambert reports that Google: "releases its cumulative miles driven [see graph above] on autonomous and manual modes... [while Tesla has just] confirmed that 47 million miles were driven while the Autopilot was activated... They [Google and Tesla] also pull data differently based on their hardware (LiDAR vs Cameras), but the main difference is that Tesla has about 70,000 vehicles equipped with Autopilot hardware on the roads, while Google currently operates only 54 prototypes... [furthermore, Google's] vehicles are located in Mountain View, CA, Austin, TX, and Kirkland, WA. While Tesla’s fleet is spread out across the world."
This is, indeed, a compelling data point to consider: 47 million miles driven by Tesla's 70,000 production vehicles vs. 1.5 million miles driven by Google's 54 prototype vehicles.
We've compared the two companies before, but, in light of this data, it's clear that Tesla will be a force to be reckoned with in the autonomous vehicle arena -- Elon Musk has even claimed, “I actually think that within two years you’ll be able to summon your [Tesla] car from across the country. Let’s say you’re in New York and your car is in Los Angeles. It will find its way to you and meet you wherever your phone is. The phone will just communicate with your car and tell it where to find you. It will automatically charge itself along the journey.” A future like this is hard to imagine; kind of reminds me of this New Yorker cartoon...
Source: Conde Nast Collection (New Yorker / Paul Noth)
Sure. Right now, we're comparing apples and oranges. But, it's conceivable that Tesla's autopilot self-driving features may soon perform a lot more like Google's autonomous vehicles. I wonder if Tesla's Musk and Google's Page and Brin discuss the possibilities of collaborating a bit more to achieve full vehicle autonomy. Based, on Vance's account in his Elon Musk biography, we hope so. The possibility to save lives and add safety [see infographic below] are getting closer with both company's self-driving efforts.
Source: Best Infographics via Weekly Science
Regardless, Elon Musk is not sitting still. According to the Globes, Musk, "secretly visited Israel... in a private plane to visit Mobileye which is developing key components for Tesla's automatic driving system Autopilot... the aim of the visit was to view a demonstration of several breakthrough developments by Mobileye in this field installed on a trial Tesla Model S vehicle."
So although we're impressed with Google's autonomous vehicle prototypes, it appears that Tesla is moving quickly towards increased autonomous vehicle functionality in its production vehicles soon. We'll be sure to keep you posted on any developments.