What Autonomous-Driving Technology Could Mean for Tesla

By · September 20, 2013

As if promising to produce a $35,000 mass-produced electric car in about three years wasn't enough, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk confirmed in an interview with The Financial Times that the automaker is gearing up to commercialize autonomous driving technologies in future models.

Model S

The news comes as no surprise to those who have been closely following Tesla. In addition to Musk’s previous public ruminations on the subject—in which he stated that Tesla would build “autopilot-like” features into future cars at some point—Tesla recently posted a job listing on its website for an Advanced Driver Assistance Systems Engineer, specifically to help “Tesla’s effort to pioneer fully automated driving.” (While stories about a Tesla autonomous car have been picked up numerous major media outlets in the past few days, credit for spotting the job posting goes to PluginCars.com contributor David Herron, who first wrote about it for LongTailPipe.com on August 6, 2013.)

But how autonomous will Tesla’s self-driving technology be? Will it bring in an age of Jetsons-style commutes for all, or focus on enhanced safety? Tesla is keeping specifics confidential, but here’s what we know so far.

Driver Aid

“We should be able to do 90 per cent of miles driven within three years,” Musk told The Financial Times earlier this week. “My opinion is it’s a bridge too far to go to fully autonomous cars... It’s incredibly hard to get the last few per cent.”

While Musk added that in most situations the auto pilot feature would be available for drivers to use, the remaining 10 percent would require drivers to be alert and ready to take over, making Tesla’s approach more about developing an advanced safety-focused driver-aid than building fully robotic cars.

What about automated valet-style self-parking cars that drop off the driver before going to find a parking space? Nissan this month exhibited the ability of its prototype autonomous-driving LEAF to perform this function, and said it would be available by 2020. But Tesla hasn’t hinted that this is a planned feature, although its wow-factor could make it a target for Tesla. As with all autonomous driving, the technology is advancing faster than the insurance and regulatory issues that would guide commercialization of the features.

The more immediate focus is safety systems, which would apply semi-self-driving technology to reducing accidents. To compete, Tesla needs to keep pace with advanced safety features offered by luxury carmakers, including vehicles from Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Volvo that use radar technology to anticipate when a vehicle in front comes to an abrupt stop, and automatically apply brakes. These car companies, and others, have also demonstrated automated systems for turning controls over to the car's compute in a stop-and-go traffic jam conditions.

In past interviews, Musk hinted that Tesla’s approach is to use existing hardware solutions, possibly from top suppliers, in combination with in-house software development. This would likely mean following natural evolutionary paths for systems like lane departure and blind-spot warning, adaptive cruise control and pedestrian alert systems—integrating them with all-around laser, radar, sonar and camera sensors to produce cars that are very safe, and can follow a prescribed route. The software could also be configured for assisting with road trips by helping drivers find the best time and location to use a Tesla Supercharger.

Driver Still Required

Unlike Google, which is trying to build a future of fully-autonomous, no-driver-needed self-driving cars, Tesla’s approach is closer to auto-pilot systems used in the aeronautical industry. Rather than set a destination and expect the car to go all the way without driver input, Musk’s vision has cars handling a large proportion of the trip without input, but still require some form of driver involvement.

Like modern commercial airliners, which can fly thousands of miles following a pre-set flight plan but which still rely on fully trained pilots being on hand to take off, land, and take control in the event of an emergency, Tesla’s approach would likely take over on freeway stretches or traffic jams, but require drivers to tackle busy, hectic and diverse traffic conditions found in cities.

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