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Fully Self-Driving Tesla: Fact or Fiction?

Is innovation and technology driving us toward the Level 5 driverless car faster than we (or the market) thinks? This week Tesla Motors (NYSE; TSLA) announced that the Company will now equip all new Tesla vehicles with hardware that could eventually enable full self-driving capabilities. Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated that before 2018 a Tesla will be driven across America without the help or input of a human.

This week the car world has been abuzz over this groundbreaking announcement. Tesla continues to push the entire auto industry to innovate, adapt, and change. Below are selected videos, blogs, and commentary that appeared this week:

REPOSTED FROM TESLA’s BLOG:

Self-driving vehicles will play a crucial role in improving transportation safety and accelerating the world’s transition to a sustainable future. 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.

We are excited to announce that, as of today, all Tesla vehicles produced in our factory – including Model 3 – will have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver. Eight surround cameras provide 360 degree visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors complement this vision, allowing for detection of both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system. A forward-facing radar with enhanced processing provides additional data about the world on a redundant wavelength, capable of seeing through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead.

To make sense of all of this data, a new onboard computer with more than 40 times the computing power of the previous generation runs the new Tesla-developed neural net for vision, sonar and radar processing software. 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.

Model S and Model X vehicles with this new hardware are already in production, and customers can purchase one today.

Before activating the features enabled by the new hardware, we will further calibrate the system using millions of miles of real-world driving to ensure significant improvements to safety and convenience. While this is occurring, Teslas with new hardware will temporarily lack certain features currently available on Teslas with first-generation Autopilot hardware, including some standard safety features such as automatic emergency braking, collision warning, lane holding and active cruise control. As these features are robustly validated we will enable them over the air, together with a rapidly expanding set of entirely new features. As always, our over-the-air software updates will keep customers at the forefront of technology and continue to make every Tesla, including those equipped with first-generation Autopilot and earlier cars, more capable over time.

REPOSTED FROM www.bmwblog.com:

At the moment, fully autonomous vehicles simply are not possible. Machines cannot replicate the human mind when it comes to driving an automobile. Our ability to see situations in real time, understand them and recognize what to do simply cannot be replicated by computers yet. However, the day when it is possible is likely coming and Tesla wants to be prepared. That’s why the Silicon Valley-based brand is offering a suite of self-driving hardware technology on all new vehicles, right now, so that when the software catches up to the hardware, owners will be ready.

Of course, because of this, Elon Musk is claiming that Tesla is the car company with the first fully-autonomous capabilities. Which is true, if you forget that it’s not. I do admit that I admire Tesla’s moxie, offering a suite of new hardware to customers that they can’t even use yet, but might be able to in a few years. That’s bold. That’s bolder than bold. And it gets even more so when you factor in the cost.

Musk told reporters that this suite of eight cameras and various other sensors would cost $8,000 (although if you add up the cost of the packages on Tesla’s site, it’s $10,000). That’s a lot of money to spend on a car for options you can’t even use for years to come and on a car you may not even own by the time you actually can use them.

Plus, who’s to say that the hardware included in the package (eight cameras, twelve ultrasonic sensors with 360 degree monitoring capability and a very powerful on-board processor) won’t be outdated by the time fully autonomous capabilities arrive? What if a new company, or even Tesla itself, develops a new technology that makes cameras and sensors a thing of the past? With technology so rapidly advancing these days, as new tech makes year-old tech obsolete every day, it’s not a far-fetched idea. Could these sensors theoretically allow a new Tesla to be completely self-driving if software were to catch up? Probably, but that’s a big “if” and there’s no immediately foreseeable future where that “if” becomes a “when”.

Edwin Olson, Associate Computer Science Professor the University of Michigan recently told a Vox reporter “There’s a long ways to go in all of these areas,” speaking about autonomous driving. “And reliability is the biggest challenge of all. Humans aren’t perfect, but we’re amazingly good drivers when you think about it, with 100 million miles driven for every fatality. The reality is that a robot system has to perform at least at that level, and getting all these weird interactions right can make the difference between a fatality every 100 million miles and a fatality every 1 million miles.” So we’re really not that close to perfecting self-driving cars, which makes preemptively buying hardware for a technology that doesn’t fully exist yet somewhat silly.

I admire Tesla’s can-do attitude and dedication to creating self-driving vehicles. It’s admirable and definitely the future for the automotive industry. But not everyone is convinced. According to Edmunds Inc analyst Jessica Caldwell, this suite of options is a “vanity purchase” for both Tesla buyers. It allows buyers to boast about how they technically have fully-autonomous capabilities and it allows Musk to claim Tesla is the first company to do so, which is arguable.

Is the hardware impressive? Yes, it is. It features a series of cameras and sensors and enough processing power to monitor everything around it. That is, indeed, impressive. Even Tesla’s current Autopilot system is very impressive. However, without clever enough software, software that can replicate a human’s ability to recognize and diagnose any situation possible, it might not be as useful – for now.

REPOSTED FROM BLOOMBERG 10.20.16:

After pushing the auto industry along toward an electric future, Elon Musk wants to put cars on an accelerated path to driving autonomously, equipping each new Tesla Motors Inc. model with the hardware needed for full self-driving capability. Every Tesla, including the upcoming Model 3 sedan, will ship with eight cameras and a dozen sensors to give them 360-degree visibility, according to the Palo Alto, California-based company. While drivers won’t be able to let go of the steering wheel yet, that’s a goal after a series of software refinements Tesla makes over time.

Tesla plans to do a Los Angeles-to-New York drive “without the need for a single touch” by the end of 2017, Musk told reporters Wednesday on a conference call.

In building each vehicle with the necessary hardware regardless of whether the customer orders it, Tesla’s betting scale will help to deliver on the aggressive timeline Musk has set for fully self-driving cars. Automakers including BMW AG and Ford Motor Co. are taking slower and step-by-step approaches, offering semi-autonomous driving systems as optional equipment and generally ruling out full self-driving capability until sometime after 2020.

Tesla shares fell 2.8 percent to $197.85 at 9:42 a.m. in New York, giving back Wednesday’s gain ahead of an announcement that some investors had speculated may include an entirely new product. The shares have slumped about 18 percent this year amid concerns with Tesla’s cash needs and Musk’s plan for the carmaker to acquire money-losing rooftop panel installer SolarCity Corp., where he’s also chairman. Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst Ben Kallo reiterated his outperform rating on the stock after the announcement saying Tesla has the leading autonomous drive system on the road.

Chips from Nvidia Corp. will ship along with the cameras and ultrasonic sensors on all new Teslas. The models have 40 times the processing power of previous generations, according to a company blog post. Buyers will choose how much software capability they want to activate for their vehicle, with full autonomous features available for about $8,000.

“The more vehicles out there collecting information (even when the system isn’t ‘operational’) the smarter the system can get,” Joseph Spak, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, said in a note to clients. “Tesla will be the first automaker out there with that ability.”

Autopilot Impact
Tesla’s Autopilot system has already been available on models built since October 2014, roughly 114,000 vehicles worldwide. While the company pivots to the latest hardware, new models will temporarily lack features including automatic braking, collision warnings, lane keeping and active cruise control.

Buyers will now have two options when buying a car: an improved version of Autopilot, or full self-driving, Musk said on the conference call. “We believe TSLA has the most autopilot miles, the most data, and improved hardware necessary to maintain its status as the best autopilot system,” Ben Kallo, an analyst with Robert W. Baird, wrote in a research note to clients.

Current owners of Model S sedans and Model X SUVs won’t be able to retrofit their vehicles with the new hardware due to the complexity involved. “It would be like giving them a spinal cord transplant,” Musk said. “Even if possible, it’s not prudent.”

Autopilot has been under scrutiny since a fatal crash in Florida on May 7, which prompted probes by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. After two other non-fatal accidents, Consumer Reports called on Tesla to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and to change the Autopilot name to avoid confusion. German regulators have asked the company to stop using the name.

The hardware package will be equipped on each Model 3, a more affordable sedan Tesla plans to sell starting at $35,000 before incentives. Slated to begin production in late 2017, the Model 3 fulfills Musk’s longstanding vision of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable transportation. About 373,000 pre-orders for the Model 3 have been placed, according to figures Tesla hasn’t updated since May.

“At some point they will flip a switch and the world will look different,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who’s written extensively on driverless car liability. “They haven’t flipped a switch yet, but they are building out the wiring.”

More than 35,000 people were killed in U.S. traffic accidents last year. Both the industry and regulators view self-driving cars as promising not only for their potential to save lives but to improve mobility for the elderly and disabled. While Tesla has faced criticism for “beta-testing” its capabilities with consumers, the company has accumulated a treasure trove of data under real world driving conditions. Earlier this month, Musk tweeted that vehicles with Tesla Autopilot have driven 222 million cumulative miles.

“It would be crazy to turn off something that is preventing accidents,” Musk said.

REPOSTED FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES OCTOBER 10.19.16

DETROIT — Tesla Motors said on Wednesday that it would equip all of its new vehicles with technology that enables fully autonomous driving, but would not activate the system until it undergoes further testing.

In a blog post, the maker of electric cars said the new hardware included cameras, sensors and radars that allow the vehicles to operate without a human driver. The company said the technology would be installed in all of its models, including the much-anticipated Model 3 sedan, which is expected to reach the United States market next year.

“We are excited to announce that, as of today, all Tesla vehicles produced in our factory — including Model 3 — will have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability,” the company said.

Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, had been hinting in recent weeks that the company was eager to improve upon its existing Autopilot feature, which assists drivers rather than controls the vehicle entirely.

Federal regulators have been investigating the safety of the Autopilot system since the driver of a Model S sedan was killed on May 7 in Florida. The vehicle, operating in Autopilot mode, collided with a white tractor-trailer, which the system failed to recognize because of bright sunlight.

Tesla recently announced improvements to the Autopilot feature that Mr. Musk has said would have prevented the Florida accident. But the company now appears to be moving beyond systems that assist human drivers, to newer technology that enables fully autonomous driving.

“It looks like Tesla’s Autopilot features are that much closer to actually being a true Autopilot and not just a name for a suite of autonomous features,” said Akshay Anand, an analyst with automotive research firm Kelley Blue Book.

The Tesla blog post said that although the hardware would be installed in all new vehicles, the fully autonomous driving system would not be enabled until more testing was performed. “Before activating the features enabled by the new hardware, we will further calibrate the system using millions of miles of real-world driving,” the company said, without announcing a specific timetable.

Tesla is undergoing a significant expansion with the addition of the Model 3, which will be priced at $35,000 — less than half the cost of its higher-end sedans and Model X sport utility vehicle. The company is ratcheting up production of the Model 3 at its California plant, and expects to begin filling more than 300,000 pre-orders sometime next year.

Tesla's 350 degree cameras and sensors are the technology that hope to enable fully autonomous driving for the masses.

Tesla’s 350 degree cameras and sensors are the technology that hope to enable fully autonomous driving for the masses.

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2 Responses to Fully Self-Driving Tesla: Fact or Fiction?

  1. TASOS KOKORIS October 24, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

    I currently drive an 85D MS (AWD), which followed a very early 85 MS (RWD). To date I have logged just under 100K miles, and I am a total convert to the tech and to the company.

    The Tesla video above is a bit unrealistic FOR TODAY. I have no doubt that it will be the norm within 5 years. I have been using autopilot software routinely in heavy traffic conditions, and it is truly liberating. Even though I can text and email while on autopilot, I am very self-conscious about seeming irresponsible to other drivers (or police) that may not realize I am on autopilot. I am still very cautious and I don’t generally use the system at high speeds unless the road is fairly open and well-marked.

    I’m still too chicken to use the self-park or summon modes, and I love the feel of steering and accelerating on my own terms, anyway. The new 8.0 software update is fabulous!

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