Mars-gazing solar panel enthusiast, Tesla tycoon, and probable Bond villain Elon Musk announced Wednesday night that all Teslas built from today forward will come with a next-gen suite of sensors and hardware capable of handling Level 5 autonomy. Translation: They'll be fully self-driving. You'll literally never have to touch the controls.
At first blush, this is just another eye-roll announcement from a man whose typical modus operandi is aggressively pushing development faster than anyone thinks is safe, or humanly possible. We've called bullshit on Tesla countless times now, and the company has been slammed with criticism on all sides for the dangers inherent in its Autopilot system -- an early iteration of a technology that drivers just aren't ready for.
The other side of this lofty, pie-in-the-sky announcement, though, is that for the time being, Tesla is actually deactivating Autopilot in all new cars. And that's a very, very good sign that Tesla might finally get its act together and do what every other major car manufacturer is doing: skip the dangerous half-steps and go straight to full autonomy.
The "old" Autopilot faced plenty of criticism for being misleading
In many ways, the now-outgoing Autopilot is a simple system that functions reasonably well for what it's designed to do. That is, it helps you get to work with a little less stress about whether you're staying in your own lane, or covers for you if you forget to brake in heavy traffic.
When misused, Autopilot can be downright dangerous. Many uninformed owners don't understand that it's simply a driver aid that requires their constant attention and interaction with the controls. Even the German government stepped in last week when the transportation minister demanded Tesla stop using the term "Autopilot" in marketing. He then sent out a mass mailing to Tesla owners warning them about the potential for misuse.
There's also a bit of a question mark around Autopilot's safety record. While Musk is fond of citing curated statistics that show Autopilot as better than a human driver, a very recent survey* of the data paints a starkly different picture, pointing to a limited Tesla sample size, and highlighting numbers that are actually quite a bit below average when compared to other cars on the road, per government data.
*Check out that survey if you have time. It's worth a read.
Tesla is finally taking some time to conduct R&D
A company called Mobileye was helping Tesla develop its self-driving technologies, but it decided earlier this year that Musk was pushing the technology too far, too fast, and the relationship was terminated. Enter NVIDIA, a processor company known for gaming and cutting-edge VR. It's at the center of Nintendo's latest and greatest, and plenty of grown men have virtually died at the tiny hands of children playing Call of Duty using one of the company's graphics cards. NVIDIA has been breaking into the automotive realm for a while now, and it's NVIDIA's chip that will eventually enable Tesla's software (which is still being developed) to tie that suite of sensors into one cohesive, completely self-driving-capable system.
It's very likely that NVIDIA is also the reason why Tesla is temporarily suspending all Autopilot systems in new cars. And not only Autopilot -- it's turning off emergency braking and active lane-keeping assistance too. A new Tesla will have all of this stuff, but the software will remain deactivated until some later date when the technology is deemed ready. Just like Mobileye, NVIDIA has a reputation to uphold, and while this bit is unconfirmed, it is wholly logical that NVIDIA would stipulate its hardware only be used after very thorough testing and calibration. It's Cover Your Ass 101.
Removing the functionality for now is a very good thing
This might seem like a step backwards, but it will force Tesla to take its time refining the system -- and the more time it takes, the better. When the various Autopilot-related features come back online (Musk hints it could be as early as December, but with no definitive timeframe, it could just as easily be 2018), it's reasonable to expect they'll be quite a bit more refined than they are now.
This is an interesting time for Tesla, and not just because it's taking a cautious approach for the first time in the company's history. It's gambling mightily by putting all the hardware in cars now, when there's no guarantee -- or even indication -- that the government will legalize fully self-driving cars for the masses within Musk's stated 2017 timeframe. Considering the hardware costs $8,000, anyone buying it now is essentially crowdfunding its development -- a practice that definitely is straight from the Musk playbook. Overall, this might not be a perfect solution, but it certainly is progress for Elon and Tesla.
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