Tesla is beating everyone to the autonomous car game; but is it ready to face the consequences?

Like every other quick leap in technology, it all comes with its fair share of criticism.

Sheldon Pinto October 21, 2016 14:16:26 IST
Tesla is beating everyone to the autonomous car game; but is it ready to face the consequences?

Just a day ago, Tesla CEO, Elon Musk announced that the company has begun to include a number of new sensors in its production car models that would give its vehicles self-driving capabilities. He also made it clear that it will only be the newer deliveries rolling out of the factories that will feature the autonomous driving package as the cost of retrofitting the existing models with the new sensors will be half as much as a new vehicle itself.

https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/789007996038721536

This is a bit odd as the same sensors will be offered as an additional $8000 package on currently announced models. The CEO did announce that the Autopilot feature in its existing vehicles would be getting software updates to improve its maneuvering capabilities.

What do these new sensors do?

The new sensors will be fitted in its Model S and Model X electric cars that are already being produced with the new hardware built-in. The new set of sensors includes 8 cameras, 12 updated sensors, and a radar with faster processing capabilities. Tesla has skipped on the commonly used LiDAR, which is laser technology used by most manufacturers to let cars get an idea of its surroundings.

This time around Tesla will not be using Mobileye's computer vision chips as the debate with the Israeli company over a previous accident has yet to be settled. The same is currently being used in existing models for Tesla's Autopilot feature. The combination of these sensors will help the Tesla vehicle, make decisions, avoid obstacles and pedestrians, and with a connected brain even determine whether the parking available is meant for handicapped drivers or not.

Tesla claims and has shown through a video that all the driver needs to do is "press a button" and the car then drops the driver off at the destination; and will even park itself afterwards. Hailing your car from a crowded parking lot is simple, as you do not have to find your car, but your car will find you. Musk even went on to claim that with the new autonomous system in place, the car will eventually find the driver, even if it is on the other side of the country.

https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/789022017311735808

The problem with LiDAR

LiDAR is expensive. A LiDAR unit alone used to cost in the range of $75,000, but the price tags eventually came down and now cost around $8000 dollars. But that again is just one unit and not the rest of the sensors, which still makes it a bit pricey. While we do know that another company called Innoluce BV (acquired by Infineon Technologies AG), a designer of miniature “lidar” laser-scanning modules, we also know that it will take a bit of time until we get a ready module that will be priced low enough so that it can be fitted onto standard production vehicles. So for now, Tesla's solution indeed seems to be the right way ahead even though it in a way has reduced the costs, while increasing the risks as Fortune pointed out.

While many automakers including Ford are using LiDAR in their self-driving mules, it is being used as an additional measure in case the standard radar system fails. And there are chances that this could happen as every system used on self-driving test cars these days have their limitations depending on the weather conditions like snow, fog etc. So yes, with one less, there is a risk that comes with cutting corners.

The past

Like every other quick leap in technology, it all comes with its fair share of criticism. You first have the German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt has asked Tesla to stop advertising its electric vehicles as having an Autopilot function as this might suggest drivers’ attention is not needed. While this may sound like criticism, Tesla has its fair share of accidents so this in turn may help manufacturers clear their doubts about what the law thinks should and should not be allowed.

It was not too long ago that a Tesla driver was killed in an accident that sent shockwaves and has led to endless disputes over how badly or well Tesla handled the situation. Joshua D. Brown, of Canton, Ohio, died in the accident May 7 in Williston, Florida, when his car’s cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky and didn’t automatically activate its brakes, according to government records obtained.

While these are indeed blamed at certain technologies that were not mean to be used in a particular manner, the new self-driving cars that will be rolled out by 2017 which is a very ambitious date considering that mainstream car manufacturers have set dates of 2020 for their autonomous vehicles. Tesla indeed has a lead here, but it does come with risks and when something goes wrong, it gets really easy to point fingers at the negatives, rather than consider the positive outcomes of the same.

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