Posted on February 08, 2017 by Charles Morris
Autonomous vehicles are going to change not only the auto industry, but our entire society, to an extent that very few people yet realize. The undisputed pioneer of this new frontier is Tesla [NASDAQ: TSLA], but the company’s leadership is seldom recognized in the media. News stories about self-driving vehicles tend to focus on funny-looking experimental cars performing tests in controlled environments - a stage that Tesla’s vehicles passed through years ago.
Above: Tesla is a pioneer in the race to the self-driving car (Instagram: learntesla)
The SAE recognizes five levels of vehicle autonomy, from (1) Driver Assistance to (5) Full Automation. Tesla’s Autopilot feature, which was introduced in 2014, currently offers Level 3, or Conditional Automation, which means that the vehicle can perform all aspects of driving, but the human driver may have to intervene at times. Tesla engineers are steadily pushing on to Level 5, in which the vehicle can handle full-time driving (and the human passengers can fiddle with their phones, nap or whatever). Elon Musk has promised to demonstrate a vehicle that can drive itself from Los Angeles to New York by the end of 2017.
Above: SAE's five automation levels (Image: Business Insider)
One reason that Tesla’s Autopilot has progressed so quickly is that it is integrated with the company’s over-the-air connectivity. Even when Tesla Autopilot is not engaged, it is learning, collecting data about road conditions and driver behavior, and beaming the information back to the Tesla mother ship. This gives Tesla an edge that no other player in the autonomy space can match. Meanwhile, the incumbent automakers have not been idle - OEMs including GM, Ford, Daimler, VW and BMW, as well as suppliers such as Bosch and Nvidia, have been filing a steady stream of autonomy-related patents. Nissan has publicly tested a self-driving LEAF, and Audi has begun teasing autonomy features in TV ads.
Above: The Tesla Model S (Instagram: currynana)
However, unless one of these companies is keeping some top secret breakthrough up its sleeve, Tesla would appear to be miles ahead of any potential competition in the autonomy arena. As of last October, Tesla said it had accumulated over 300 million miles of data with Autopilot engaged, and 1.3 billion miles of “passive” data (with Autopilot inactive, but the system still recording data). In contrast, the much-hyped Google’s Waymo project, (founded as the Google Self-Driving Car Project in 2009) uses a custom-built car designed to do autonomous driving without a human driver. As of last November, it had logged only 2.3 million miles of autonomous driving at four test locations.
Above: Google Waymo's self-driving test car (Image: Robohub via Waymo)
Unlike Google’s much smaller trove of data, Tesla's information is not being generated in a controlled experimental environment, but rather from thousands of ordinary Model S and Model X drivers going about their daily commutes all over the world. And the database is growing exponentially - the number of active miles reached in October had already tripled since May. And unlike any other automaker’s system (that we know about), Tesla’s Autopilot is constantly being improved via over-the-air software updates.
Above: Tesla is constantly improving the fleet with over-the-air software updates (Image: InsideEVs)
As usual, laws and regulations are lagging far behind technological advances. Tesla’s vehicles can already do things (such as self-parking) that are technically illegal on public roads. And the question of responsibility when things go wrong looms as a major issue. A tragic milestone was passed last May when Tesla owner Joshua Brown became the first person to die in a crash that occurred while his Model S was in Autopilot mode.
Above: Crash rates in model years 2014-2016 Tesla Model S and Model X vehicles (Source: Bloomberg via NHTSA, Tesla)
After a full investigation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration determined that Tesla was not at fault in the crash, and also noted that the frequency of accidents involving Tesla vehicles has declined by 40% since the company introduced Autopilot. However, some legal experts have said that automakers could still be held liable in future cases if driver assistance systems fail to prevent a crash. For more on the fascinating history and industry-wide growth of the autonomous car, check out this infographic...
Source: Get Off Road