Tesla Model S

Tesla Motors 7.1 software update a baby step to… an autonomous robotaxi service?

Along with releasing the Tesla Model S/X version 7.1 update, an online press conference was held this morning in which Elon Musk said some crazy things that might just become true.  We have to wonder if some of the things which are possible are in fact desirable.  Namely – most of the conference was taken up with the idea of “summoning” a Model S even though you’re thousands of miles away.  This brings to mind the unwanted side effect of autonomous cars, that the highways could be clogged with empty cars.

That is, we’re facing a big traffic congestion problem.  Many cities are gridlocked every day — and the root problem is the inefficient land use that is individually driven cars.  In terms of passengers carried per square mile of road surface, a human-driven car with solo occupant is extremely inefficient.

Autonomously driven vehicles can improve on this by allowing cars to pack themselves together.  It’s expected that future autonomous vehicle technology will drive much better than any human, and therefore drive more closely packed than is humanly possible.  The limiting factor for humans is our response time, whereas an autonomously driven car can theoretically respond instantaneously.

What does this have to do with today’s press conference?  In today’s press conference, Elon Musk described how future Model S/X owners would be able to summon their car from any distance – currently this feature is limited to 30 feet – and the car would automatically drive itself to your location.  While this may be interesting to a few power users, where it’s most interesting is in an automated car sharing service based on fully autonomous cars.  Such a service could easily clog the roads with empty cars answering a summoning.

As we’ll see over the course of this blog post, Tesla Motors is putting together the pieces necessary to offer an autonomous car sharing robotaxi service.

Summonable autonomously driven cars from any distance

The version 7.1 software update lets a Model S/X owner “summon” their car.  You can see some examples of this in action on the post I made earlier today.  As shown in those videos the feature is pretty tame – the car will automatically open and close garage doors, and drive itself a short distance.   That’s cool, and where we should start to worry is what Elon Musk said about this achievement.

He described it as a “baby step” and that “ultimately you’ll be able to summon you car from anywhere where there’s a land bridge, where the car can physically get to you.  I may be slightly optimistic on this, but in two years I think you’ll be able to summon your car cross country.”

What he’s describing is summoning a car using a smart phone app, from any distance.  There must be a series of land-based roadways connecting between your car’s location and your location.  The car would then wake itself up, and drive itself to you.   Supposedly within two years.

I wonder how the car will pay for road or bridge tolls?  There’s approximately a billion questions that must be answered.

Automated charging for autonomously driven cars

Since “any distance” means cross country, there’ll need to be a method to automatically recharge the car while it’s traveling to meet you.  For which Elon said:  “Eventually, the car will need to automatically charge, so you’ll need an automated system to charge long-distance trip.”   And, there’s that robotic-snake-shaped-charging-cord for which Tesla Motors released a video five months ago.

It’s plausible this robotic autocharging technology will be deployed at Supercharger stations.  As if it’s that onerous a task for a human to plug in the charging cord.  But, if the car is autonomously driving itself, and there’s no human to plug in the car, then how does the car charge itself?

The answer could have been wireless charging pads.  But, no, apparently Elon Musk wants a Robot to do it.

Before Tesla Motors can implement the full autonomy necessary for cross country unoccupied travel, this is needed:

We need more sensors than we currently have to achieve that. We need a lot of redundancy to make that possible. More cameras, more radars. We need redundant electronics, power buses etc. It needs to be that any system in the car can fail and still operate. At the moment the driver is ‘Plan B’ if something goes wrong: it fails to driver. For that functionality it would need another set of sensors.

If there’s no human to accommodate a failure, then the car needs to take care of its own failure mode.

Summonable, autonomously driven cars, that can charge themselves, that can …

Let’s put these pieces together and form a picture which Elon Musk didn’t speak …

  • Summoning a car via smart phone app
  • Car can drive itself to your location, from quite a distance away
  • Autonomously driven cars with autonomous charging equipment to keep the car charged
  • Car with more sensors to, for example, detect and mitigate failures occurring when no humans are present

While Elon Musk described a car owner summoning the car they own, these features can apply to an autonomous car sharing service as well.  It’s hard to imagine someone needing to summon their car from thousands of miles away.  Yes, some yokel will strap a GoPro in a car and do this, just to post the video on YouTube and have a laugh or three.  But is this a real use case anybody really needs?  I don’t think so.

The real need here is an autonomous car sharing service.   All the car companies, as well as companies like Uber and Lyft, are looking into offering exactly this service.

What if you could summon a car from a service and the car drives itself to you automatically?  I’ve seen several presentations from several companies discussing exactly this idea.  A few months ago I was in a Focus Group at the Volkswagen research center here in Silicon Valley, and we were asked to give feedback on exactly such a service.

An autonomous car sharing service would need automatic charging capability, and cars that can automatically diagnose their failures and take appropriate action.   And it would mean lots of empty cars driving the streets to meet someone who’d called for a car.  How many?  What if these services became popular enough that everyone abandoned car ownership and relied on autonomous car services?  In other words, there could be enough of these automated cars to service the whole population.

Elon Musk didn’t speak about this in the press conference.  In a previous press conference he committed a long very pregnant pause when asked about exactly this sort of plan, before saying he could not comment.  Probably Tesla Motors isn’t ready to go public with their version of this idea.  But enough car companies are mulling this idea that Tesla Motors would be foolish to not be working on it themselves.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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