Want A Self-Driving Tesla? Elon Musk Does

By · May 08, 2013

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Could a self-driving Tesla lie in the company future? Probably, but not yet.

The Tesla Model S is one of the most advanced electric cars you can buy today. With a huge 17-inch touch screen doubling up as a center console, and a steady stream of software updates beamed directly to the car over its integrated 4G data connection, the Model S is part car, part gadget. If Tesla C.E.O. Elon Musk has his way, future Tesla models could go one step further—taking over the driving for you—something Musk calls a “logical step” in automotive technology.

As Bloomberg reported yesterday, the tech-savvy billionaire said Tesla has spent time talking with software giant Google about its self-driving car technology, with a view for developing a similar system for future Tesla cars.

But while Musk’s future vision of smart, automated cars might one day become a reality for Tesla, it isn’t something we’ll see any time soon.

Autopilot, Not Self-Driving

Unlike Google, whose self-driving cars don’t require a driver behind the wheel in order to operate, Musk said he wants future models to have a feature more akin to the autopilot function in most airplanes. “I like the word autopilot more than I like the word self-driving,” he said. “Self-driving sounds like it’s going to do something you don’t want it to do. Autopilot is a good thing to have in planes, and we should have it in cars.”

Musk’s preference of nomenclature does nothing to clarify what he means by an autopilot system however. For example, aviation autopilot systems can widely vary in complexity, from keeping a steady altitude or heading all the way through to helping land the plane.

A basic automotive autopilot could keep a car moving safely at a predefined speed in a predefined lane on the freeway, controlling brakes, accelerator and steering to meet those two objectives. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘autopilot’ could refer to a fully automated system which follows a pre-defined route map, handles intersections and even changing road conditions in order to get its passengers from A to B.

Simple cameras, Sophisticated Software

The concept of smarter, partial or fully-automated driving technology isn’t exactly new. Every major automaker has engineering teams working on active safety technology to keep drivers, cars, and other road users safe, reducing accidents on the roads. The list of technologies already deployed in today's cars includes: adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping, active parking assist, and a host of alerts and warnings for cross-traffic, blind spots, and driver awareness.

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If it works for Google, why not for Tesla?

But unlike the system used by Google in its fleet of self-driving Prius Liftback and Lexus LS cars—which use a host of expensive sensors to help the self-driving cars find their way in the world—Musk’s vision relies on hardware already present in many cars today: cameras.

All-round camera systems are already offered as options on some cars, including the all-electric 2013 Nissan LEAF SL. Paired with a powerful computer and carefully-programmed software algorithms, it’s conceivable that Tesla could develop its own self-driving software for future models.

With the ability to update the firmware in its customers’ cars remotely, Tesla has already added new features remotely to existing Model S cars, including configurable regenerative braking. While adding self-driving technology as the form of a software update is well beyond the limits of the current hardware, a suitably equipped future model could have the feature turned on after purchase for an additional fee, for example.

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There are other benefits. With sophisticated enough software, a self-driving car could be even more efficient than it is with a human at the wheel, improving range and eliminating driver-induced range anxiety. The software, for example, could help route drivers to Tesla's Supercharger stations, setting cruise control speed so the cars arrive with an optimal amount of state-of-charge. Self-driving technology and electric cars go hand in hand.

An Unwanted Distraction

If any electric automaker out there has the capacity to produce an autonomous self-driving car, it's Elon "Iron Man" Musk's Tesla Motors, thanks to its Silicon Valley roots and high-tech attitude

For now however, much like his beloved super-capacitors, Musk is downplaying his visions for semi- or fully-autonomous cars. While such a technology could prove useful in locating nearby charging stations or even eliminating valet parking, he has a bigger goal first: get more people into electric cars.

Moreover, while it's every geek's dream, self driving cars have to go through a lot of testing and a lengthy approval process before we'll see them on the roads. And with Tesla poised to announce its first ever profit in its official first-quarter earnings call later today, that equates to continuing Tesla’s drive towards an affordable, sub-$30,000 everyday electric car. That's a still more daunting challenge. Dreams are great, but business logic has to come first.

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