Overnight Tesla founder Elon Musk tweeted about their Autopilot development, explaining that traffic lights, stop signs and roundabouts are all items being tested right now.
As Tesla vehicles go about understanding the world around them in an effort to navigate on behalf of the occupants, understanding and being able to cope with these complex environments, is key to reaching full autonomy.
In terms of a time frame, Musk simple lists ‘soon’, with no firm detail on when this upgrade would arrive, but it’d be safe to say we’ll see a public beta sometime in 2019.
The challenge of dealing with traffic lights is reasonably straight forward in theory, just understand what the different light types look like around the world and the different potential states (red, orange, green). But when you think through what a human brain does, it’s a lot more difficult.
When we approach an intersection following another car, Autopilot, or similar adaptive cruise technologies will slow you down. If you’re the first in the cue, you need to stop at the solid white line on the road and wait, when the light is red. When it’s orange you make sub-second assessments on the trajectory of your vehicle and it’s relative position to the intersection, then make a decision to apply the brake and stop if you think there’s time to do so safely, or alternatively accelerate to make it through before the red, paying close attention to your speed as to not brake the law just to beat the red light.
Then of course we have the non-standard intersections like hook turns in Melbourne, or the turn left on red signs, requiring further conditional trees in the algorithm to deal with these circumstances.
Now lets turn our minds to the challenges of roundabouts. These are all different sizes and have 2,3,4 even 5 or more potential exists. Given Navigate on Autopilot works by telling the car your destination, the GPS routing already knows its path through the round about (take 3rd exit).
But what about dual-lane roundabouts, the car would need to understand its environment completely to perform an exit across lanes, without interfering with another vehicle.
What about the circumstance that all other human drivers don’t stay in the their lane, this happens very frequently. It’s one thing to program for the best case where everyone does the right thing, always uses indicators etc, but it’s the 1% that are going to end up in a terrible accident if you don’t accommodate them.
What about allowing for trucks or busses that often center themselves across the lanes ahead of a roundabout, as to avoid cars getting caught inside a turning trailer.
The challenge for Tesla and others, is substantial. This is not easy stuff to get right, but if you give a bunch of really smart people the right resources, it is possible.
Obviously owners are keen to know if their vehicle has the hardware required to achieve this garage to work with no human intervention. In response to the question of Enhanced Autopilot or Full Self Driving (options are checkout), Musk says..
Very soon you’re going to have a choice when buying a new car, one that can drive itself and one that can’t.