Tesla Motors is delivering the promised Autopilot mode with an Over-The-Air update scheduled for tomorrow, Oct 15, 2015. Maybe we will look back on October 15 as the first day of the robot dominance of humanity. Maybe this will simply make Tesla’s automobiles that much more attractive, and cement Tesla’s fate as the future of the automobile. Maybe it will all fizzle out because Republicans win big next year and cancel everything that isn’t fossil fuel driven. Maybe I should stop and focus on what Autopilot mode is, and some possibilities.
First, this is not full autonomous driving. That’s due to be delivered some time in the future. But the version 7 software due for tomorrow is a big step in that direction.
Autopilot now, tomorrow the world?
In August 2013, I noticed Tesla Motors job listings for autonomous vehicle engineers. At that time they were clearly in early stages of putting the program together, since the job descriptions involved initializing the R&D effort. By October 2014, the company was able to unveil the dual-drive Tesla Model S, the P85D models, and “oh by the way” unveil an autopilot mode. They’d quietly begun installing necessary hardware in September 2014, so every Model S manufactured after a specific day a year ago has the capacity for autopilot.
The version 7 software update for tomorrow enables some of the autopilot features demo’d a year ago. Some more arrive with the 7.1 software update. Tesla says version 7 will be able to: “Model S will be able to steer to stay within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by reading road signs and using active, traffic aware cruise control.” By the way, that last feature is present in the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid which I test drove last spring. As cool as it is for Tesla Motors to do these things, they aren’t the only automakers doing so, because others are also implementing these features.
Autonomous, robocar-based, car-as-a-service business
The features Tesla Motors is delivering now or promising for the future beckon an idea – that Tesla Motors wants to get into the autonomous robocar-based car-as-a-service business. That’s a mouthful, so instead ponder this service:
- People have a smart phone app through which they can summon a car
- When summoning a car, they describe the destination of their trip, the number of passengers, and any special features required
- The smart phone app connects with a service that provides cars on an hourly basis
- The autonomously driven car navigates itself to the person’s location, unlocking itself allowing people to enter the car and then drive them to their location
Tesla Motors is delivering autopilot tomorrow, with the above named features. In a few months the 7.1 software will enable the “valet parking” feature, where the car will trundle itself off into a parking lot in search of an empty parking space. The Tesla Model X, which began delivery recently, includes doors which automatically sense the driver’s approach, and automatically open. In an interview last month with Danish press, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said to expect fully autonomous driving within three years or so.
The Tesla that is currently in production has the ability to do automatic steering autopilot on highway. That is currently being beta tested and will go into wide release early next month. So, we are probably only a month away from having autonomous driving at least for highways and for relatively simple roads. My guess for when we will have full autonomy is approximately three years.
Elon Musk’s guesses tend to come true, though not always in the time frame he says. We have to put all these features together and ponder whether Tesla Motors plans to offer a car-sharing service. They’re implementing the technology required to do so. In a recent conference call Musk was asked whether an autonomous car-sharing service was in Tesla’s plans, and there was a pregnant pause before Musk said he couldn’t comment. It sure looks like a Tesla-branded car sharing service is being pondered by Tesla Motors.
But let’s be clear – the other car companies are pondering the same thing. In Jan 2012, Daimler’s Dr. Zetsche discussed autopilot features at the CES trade show. Google has been developing autonomous driving technology for some time, and in Feb 2012 I wrote up a talk by Brad Templeton (a member of the Google team) about his Robocar vision. Google is working with car companies, and apparently is licensing technology out rather than desiring to get into the carmaking business itself. Earlier this month, General Motors said they planned to offer a GM-branded autonomous car sharing service. A top Nissan engineer came to the SF BayLeaf’s meeting (Nissan Leaf Owners association) a couple years ago to talk about Nissan’s plans for autonomous car sharing services. In Sept 2013, Andy Palmer (then with Nissan) described a zero-emissions zero-fatality vision as Nissan’s big goal by 2020. Earlier this year I was in a focus group at the R&D facility of a major car maker, who asked our opinion on autonomous car sharing services. In July 2015, VW showed an experimental e-Golf that could park itself and charge itself (via wireless charging).
Such a service would have to preposition cars in areas where there are people. How long would you be willing to wait for a taxi to arrive? Or a ride from Uber or Lyft? The cars for such a service would have to be positioned close enough to arrive quickly enough to be an attractive service. That means the service is likelier for dense urban settings than for the suburbs, just as is true for existing car sharing or ride sharing services.
Besides getting the technology right, a big issue is whether governments will allow inattentive drivers on the road.
That is, current law may not explicitly say it but the current standard is that drivers are in control of their vehicle at all times. Various laws exist making it a crime to be inattentive, such as being drunk off your ass. The lawmakers did not foresee cars that would allow the “driver” to go to sleep, start reading a book, have sex in the back seat, etc, while the car is driving them somewhere. All that will be possible in a few years according to not only Tesla Motors but pretty much every car manufacturer. Will the governments be able to keep up?
The future is quickly arriving. Are we ready?
In the meantime here’s a few videos.
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