Why Tesla Autopilot is a Big Deal

Guest Post: Dave T. is editor of Tesla Weekly* website and newsletter - a fantastic source for those interested in the latest news on both TSLA (for investors) and Tesla Motors (for owners, fans, and enthusiasts).

This past week Tesla has begun rolling out new Autopilot software to Autopilot-enabled Model S cars that will allow for automatic lane steering. When combined with the existing adaptive cruise control, drivers can now let the car drive itself for long stretches of highway driving.

Source: Tesla Motors

Here’s why I think Tesla’s Autopilot is a very big deal. 

First, autonomous driving is truly the biggest disruptive change in the auto world in our lifetime. Sure, the electrification of the car is a big deal as well, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the driving experience as much as autonomous driving does. It’s true that Autopilot isn’t completely autonomous, but it’s a great start and a huge leap forward.

Source: Tesla Motors

When driving a non-Autopilot Model S people usually point out how smooth and responsive the acceleration is, how quiet the cabin is without any engine noise, and how excellent the handling is with the low center of gravity. Basically, they’re saying “this car drives better than other cars”. However, the Autopilot experience (and eventually autonomous driving) is saying “this car drives fundamentally different than other cars.” In other words, the driving experience is completely different. For one, the car is in charge (for the most part) of keeping speed, keeping in the lane, and avoiding hitting nearby cars. The driver becomes more passive and relies more on the car telling them when their attention is required.

In fact, I would venture to say that with this past week’s release of Autopilot this is the first time in history when the driver’s role can truly shift from active driving to passive driving. Sure, there have been a handful of cars that have had features like adaptive cruise control with lane assist or lane keeping, but their implementation has been severely lacking and didn’t instill a ton of confidence in drivers to truly give up active driving in favor or passive driving. With Autopilot, Tesla got it right. They’ve implemented the system in a way that truly has amazing potential and can instill confidence in the driver to go more passive.

Source: Tesla Motors

The biggest reason for Autopilot’s success will be the network effect and continuous learning of the system. All Autopilot-enabled cars are feeding data into a central server and the algorithms that drive Autopilot are being updated and improved on a continuous basis. In other words, the car is learning to drive better and better as more people drive and teach it.

Simply by driving (and allowing the data to be processed by Tesla’s servers) all Autopilot-enabled Model S owners (and Model X owners in the future) are contributing to build the brains and know-how of Autopilot. It sounds like something from the far-out future, but it’s really happening today.

As Autopilot gets better and better, Model S/X (and eventually Model 3) owners will get more confident to trust their cars to do most of the driving. Sooner than later driving will become increasingly passive. And eventually, with the advent of truly autonomous driving, driving will become completely passive. Just jump in the car and you won’t need to touch the steering wheel or pedals.

Source: Tesla Motors

Elon Musk is claiming that the technology to enable truly autonomous driving is about 3 years away. That could be true; but it could be a bit optimistic as well. Regardless, truly autonomous driving is coming, whether it be in 3 years or in 6 years. And with truly autonomous driving the entire world of transport will be turned upside down. Want to take a vacation to the mountains? Just jump in your car, watch a movie, and let your car take you there. Want dinner from Chipotle? Order on your app and have a driver-less car deliver your food for you. Needless to say, autonomous driving is going to change the world radically.

However, one doesn’t get to truly autonomous driving by just wishing or dreaming. It takes steps and it takes great execution. This is why Autopilot is so exciting. It’s because it’s the first big step to autonomous driving and gives us a taste of what’s coming in the future.

Source: Tesla Motors

In a way, one could say that Autopilot (and eventually autonomous driving) is an almost living system. In other words, as people drive it processes the data in a central server and learns. It corrects mistakes and improves the algorithms that drive Autopilot. Some of the learning processes might be manual (ie., engineers manually analyzing data) but probably the vast majority of the learning processes of Autopilot are automated by scripts/code that analyze data and add improvements to the system automatically. So, even when the engineers go home and are sleeping at night, the system is learning and is getting better.

It’s going to be difficult for other auto companies to catch up to Tesla’s Autopilot, simply because other auto companies just don’t have the software expertise to create a crowdsourced self-learning driving system. Tesla’s competition in this space will likely be other software tech companies like Google, Apple, etc.

Tesla’s Autopilot will likely help Tesla to grow demand for the Model S/X over time. There are millions of people around the world who commute long distances to and from work. Autopilot has potential to revolutionize their lives right now, and Autopilot is only getting better. So, Autopilot in 6 months is likely to be a whole lot better and compelling than it is now. This is bound to attract a lot of people to gain interest in Tesla’s cars.

All in all, Tesla has made history this [past] week. They’ve shipped a truly revolutionary product, Autopilot. And it’s the beginning of a snowball that will lead to truly autonomous driving.

Thank you Elon and the Tesla team for ushering in the future.


*Source: Tesla Weekly; All images: Tesla Motors