Tesla keeps pushing the frontier and one of its goals is cars that will utterly drive themselves.
Short of that, but as a significant step forward, this week Tesla sent out over-the-air user interface update 7.0 that enables Autopilot semi-autonomous driving.
Tesla’s aeronautically inspired system is compatible with the Model S produced from October 2014 onwards and Model X – six Founders editions of its new crossover were delivered last month and full production is pending.
Owners of the Model S built prior to last October will benefit to a degree as well from the software upgrade with a new look to their user interface, although more changes will come with Tesla software 7.1.
1. What Autopilot Is
At this stage, Autopilot is a work in progress, due to evolve said CEO Elon Musk.
More specifically, says Tesla, it relies on feedback from a forward radar, forward-looking camera, 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors monitoring 16 feet around in every direction at all speeds, and a “high-precision digitally-controlled electric assist braking system.”
These functionalities work in conjunction with pre-existing automated driving capabilities.
“This combined suite of features represents the only fully integrated autopilot system,” says Tesla of the four different feedback modules – camera, radar, ultrasonics, and GPS.
The Model S and Model X can steer within a lane, change lanes by using the turn signal, and maintain speed via active, traffic-aware cruise control.
Collisions are avoided by computer monitoring of conditions and its controlling of motors, brakes, and steering.
It can also scan for parking space, tell the driver when a space is found, and parallel park on command.
2. What Autopilot is Not
It does not produce a fully robotic driverless car in which one can go to sleep at the wheel, or travel intoxicated or fully distracted and trust the car with one’s life.
That, assuming it arrives, is reserved for what the National Highway Traffic Administration designates as Level 4 – Full Self Driving Automation.
“While truly driverless cars are still a few years away, Tesla Autopilot functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear,” says Tesla.
3. Alleviates Driving Tedium
If like most people you’re not one who enjoys mundane driving tasks, this system is designed with you in mind.
“Tesla Autopilot relieves drivers of the most tedious and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel,” says Tesla. “We’re building Autopilot to give you more confidence behind the wheel, increase your safety on the road, and make highway driving more enjoyable.”
The car can be taken over any time, and drivers are free to enjoy the car when opportunities arise.
4. It’s Central to Tesla’s Mission
Tesla wants to change the way of the automobile, and how people travel. It is a forward-looking philosophy envisioning all-electric vehicles, eschews petroleum even in hybrids, and Autopilot is part of the ethos.
“Tesla’s commitment to developing and refining the technologies to enable self-driving capability is a core part of our mission,” says Tesla.
You can be sure Tesla will keep working on it.
5. It Could Be Safer Than Humans
Compared to a person texting at the wheel, engaged in a deep phone conversation, or simply tired, inattentive – or not a good driver, period – Autopilot strands to do a better job.
That is true at this point, and Musk said prospects are it will be superior to human drivers eventually.
“Long term it will be way better than a person. It never gets tired, it’s never had anything to drink, it’s never arguing with someone in the car,” said Musk to reporters. “It’s not distracted.”
6. It’s Not Foolproof
Musk has essentially warned people they are not to cede their minds utterly to the car, and an accident could still happen.
How it plays out will remain to be seen.
“I am concerned if I accidentally press the turn indicator and change lanes when I wasn’t intending for that action said one Model X customer who will soon be finding out.
Obviously Tesla has tried to make it as fail safe as possible with multiple redundancies.
A 5,000-pound motor vehicle may still be counted as a deadly weapon if used to run into a person, other vehicle, or something else.
The system mainly is there to helps avoid collisions, but inclement weather and possibly other conditions may make it act wonky.
“If there’s heavy snow it’s going to be harder for the system to work, so we’d advise caution,” said Musk.
“Essentially it’s like a person – how well can a person figure out what route they should take,” he said. “Over time it will be better than a person.”
7. Liability is On You
“The driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car,” says Tesla.
This means, worse case, the car is capable while in Autopilot of hurting someone, though this is not expected and the system has been engineered for safety.
“It should not hit pedestrians, hopefully,” Musk said. “It should handle them well.”
If however all does fail, and a person or property are damaged, Tesla owners are legally liable.
“The driver cannot abdicate responsibility. That will come at some point in the future,” said Musk.
Below are some screen shots from the Tesla Motors Club whose members are discussing many other factors of interest.