Over eighty-five percent of automobile collisions are due to human error. Not the weather, not the road conditions; human error. This is what makes the vision of Tesla’s autonomous car so noble. The truly amazing thing is how quickly it’s changing from a vision to reality. Between October 18th and 21st, over a remarkable 57 hours and 48 minutes, professional rally car driver Alex Roy drove between Redondo Beach, California to the Red Ball Garage in New York. The astounding part of the drive is that ninety-six point one percent of it was done on autopilot. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean we currently have fully autonomous cars nor does it mean that people driving a car with this feature should give any less attention or responsibility to their driving. However, cars with a full autopilot mode that can navigate the roads are something we may see in the future, especially if you ask CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk. This innovative aspiration is something that would change the way tech companies allocate their services, the way we travel and create a massive paradigm shift in all our lifestyles.
Alex Roy did not attempt this mostly autonomous, 2,995 mile drive on his own. He was joined by fellow driving enthusiasts Carl Reeves and Deena Mastracci, each of whom took slightly longer driving shifts Alex was quoted saying. As you would think, most of the journey took place on highways. This was beneficial to the team as the autopilot feature is currently intended to be used primarily on highways, where lane-markers are more visible and the road conditions are more predictable. Automobiles drive less sporadically on highways (typically) and you don’t have to worry about cyclists, pedestrians or most animals, especially pets. Companies invested in the autopilot concept would obviously like to see it progress to the point where it works safely and efficiently wherever you are but that is presently not the case. Tesla has even made the bold statement that you will be able to summon your car via smartphone or send it back to park itself in your garage. This would be made possible through ultrasonic sensors that can detect surrounding objects at low speeds, allowing the breaks to kick in before a collision. Keep in mind that these are Tesla’s goals and other companies share similar aspirations, having seen their own success in autonomous driving. Delphi made its own cross-country trip in nine days, covering 3,400 miles. They’ve claimed that ninety-nine percent of this was done in a fully automated mode. These accomplishments made by both Tesla and Delphi are genuinely astonishing.
What makes Tesla different from other companies, in terms of autonomous driving, is the way they’ve incorporated this feature. Instead of creating a brand new car, they created a software update that gave owners of a Tesla from 2014 or later this ability through the vehicle’s computer system. Think of it like an update to your phone and focus your thinking on a feature that the phone has the capacity to do but lacked the option to access said feature. Using an iPhone as a flashlight is a great example. The iPhone originally didn’t have this feature. The phone would use a light next to the lens when taking a picture but there wasn’t a way to individually turn on the individually. The phone wasn’t receptive to this kind of input despite having the technology to do so. After a single update you could swipe up, tap the image of a flashlight and the light used for camera flash would turn on until you tapped it again. Tesla has brilliantly coalesced this concept into their product. The sensors, cameras and other technology in the Model S were already prevalent. Updating their cars didn’t change that. It intelligently made them synonymous with another useful feature, autonomy. Just like our smartphones, we are seeing easier, cheaper and progressive improvements to product updates. Rapidly advancing technology as well as this avant-garde method of approaching innovation are things that are both beneficial to society and aggressively expanding.
Despite the excitement that surrounds the future of autonomous cars, we are still a long way from seeing them become the norm. Interestingly enough, knowing how to design the cars and having the technology to execute the designs aren’t the trickiest part. In an interview with Elon Musk, he said “I almost view it as, like a solved problem. Like we know exactly what we need to do and we’ll be there in a few years,” in reference to making autonomous vehicles functional in suburban areas and able to react effectively to their environments. The larger hurdles, in terms of how long it will be until we see a world of autonomous cars, are the legality issues and replacing the two billion plus cars (granted that number may increase or decrease over time) currently occupying society. If completely autonomous cars were available tomorrow in full capacity, we would still have to wait years before they were road ready. Massive amounts of statistics would have to be gathered to prove that they are significantly safer than manually driven cars, followed by presenting the information to the government. Once validated, it would take maybe three years for the laws to change in accommodation of these vehicles. Then there’s the issue of actually replacing all the cars we drive today, which would take decades.
Regardless of whether or not we see this massive transition in our lifetime, the current status of autonomous cars coupled with the rapid rate of advancement is awe-inspiring. It’s difficult to even fathom the impact it would have on the automobile industry and any company that deals with tech related production. Despite how well known Tesla and other car companies may be, the current cost of cars with an autopilot feature make them accessible to an extremely tiny demographic. And for those who already own them, it cannot be encouraged enough that this amazing added feature should be used as a buffer, not a crutch. If the cars autopilot causes a collision, the law dictates that it is the drivers fault. The manual breaks, gas and steering override the autopilot mode, making the driver legally and morally responsible for the collision. Remember that these added features are not designed so that the driver can dismiss responsibility. That’s, at least the current status of the new technology. When the switch from manual to fully autonomous driving occurs, it won’t be missed by anyone and the fact that this is a very real possibility for the century, the amount of attention being payed to it is seemingly underwhelming in comparison. For those who use it now, do so responsibly. For everyone else, you may live to see the largest change in the automobile industry they ever had and it will likely be a simple update for consumers. I would imagine that this innovation will be turning heads at breakneck speeds in the years to come.
Post by Sean Williamson, Lixar Intern