People are taking their hands off the wheel and that’s fantastic


Never has a software update had such a profound effect on an industry. Recently Tesla started shipping Software 7.0, an over-the-air software update to their Model S owners that included Autopilot 1.0. The new feature is specifically designed to reduce driver fatigue and improve the experience of highway driving, allowing the vehicle to combine it’s adaptive cruise control with lane guidance, getting us closer than ever before to a driverless car.

If your a Tesla Model S owner, you’ll hope that it was manufactured after October 2014. If it was, then it shipped with all the necessary hardware sensors required to achieve this. All it needed was lacking was the right brain and after years of development, the software is now ready for prime time. The self-driving technology includes a forward radar, a forward-looking camera, 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors positioned to sense 16 feet around the car in every direction at all speeds, and a high-precision digitally-controlled electric assist braking system.

While Tesla will advises drivers should always be ready to take control and their hands should hover over the wheel, drivers are already trusting the system enough to experiment with hands-free driving. In many reviewer and owner-posted videos, drivers are taking their hands off the wheel for the first time.

Right now Autopilot is designed for highway driving only which means Tesla are comfortable enough letting real people, out in the wild use the technology to ease their daily commute or holiday road trip. The technology inside the vehicle watches the environment around it and adjusts the car’s position on the road accordingly. If you approach a vehicle, it appears as a virtual car on your dash, letting you know the car is being tracked and your speed is adjusted accordingly. That’s impressive, but already found in plenty of other vehicles on our roads.

While most other auto manufacturers are implementing lane departure warning systems that vibrate the steering wheel or sound an alarm, none are steering the vehicle such that you can take your hands off the wheel. Let’s be clear, you shouldn’t, but I know if I had a Tesla, I’d definitely do this.

After experiencing adaptive cruise control, I remember how surprised I was at that speed in which I trusted the technology. This is likely to be the same. Over time the number of places and environments that cars will be able to drive themselves will only ever increase. Even with future software updates to Autopilot, Tesla will hit the limit of what’s possible with existing hardware sensors and future releases will have hardware model version requirements, much like our mobile phone OS releases.

Highway driving is the easiest to to cater for, speed zones (also being read by the car) are more consistent, turns are less frequent and require far less steering angle input to keep between the lines. Highway surfaces tend to be far better than rural roads as well, however it’s highly likely we’ll see pot hole avoidance detection in the near future.

Back in 1968 the first electronic device controlling a car was created by Daniel Aaron Wisner. By 1974 cruise control had been commercialised and production vehicles from AMC, GM, Chrysler and Ford offered is as a factory option. While cruise control let drivers take their feet off the pedals, in 2015 we get our first taste of hands-free driving.

Since I’ve been driving, cruise control has been the single biggest advancement to the driving experience, allowing drivers to spend far less mental effort monitoring and making adjustments to the throttle percentage to maintain the ideal speed in a 3-5km/h window. Set and forget allows drivers to focus the other operation of steering input. With Autopilot, that is also being solved, allowing drivers to dramatically save mental energy and perform longer driving tasks easily.

I’m someone who lives in Albury Wodonga and just got back from another 700km round trip to Melbourne last weekend. Fatigue is a real issue, as is driver distraction and the faster technology like Autopilot can arrive to help drivers, the faster we’ll see the road toll drop.

The Model S also offers the ability for drivers to safely change lanes simply by turning on the indicator. The car’s sensors allows it to see the complete picture of what’s around it. As the vehicle understands it’s own proportions and the physics of merging lanes, it can calculate the space and time required to safely perform the manoeuvre.

Computers will be far better drivers than humans, it’s just a matter of time and with Software 7.0, that timeline just shrank, considerably.

For many years I’ve head auto manufacturers talk about 2020 as the year where you can walk into a showroom and buy a driverless vehicle. We’re still 4 years away from that and already we’re closer than most thought. A Tesla Model S at over $100,000 isn’t in the price range of most people, but as the technology filters down to cheaper vehicles over the next 10 years, it’s great to know we’re not trying to shoe horn a million dollar solution into a $30,000 car.

Make no mistake, every automotive manufacturer is working on driverless vehicles. This isn’t a technology race, it’s an all out war. When we look at how Apple disrupted the phone industry, its clear the first company to truly deliver driverless vehicles has a massive opportunity to dominate.

Of course these vehicles have to be safe. When we consider what safe means, people often think as safe as a human driver, but in reality the benchmark is higher for a computer. Like the case of lane changing, computers can already beat humans at safely changing lanes. With the right reversing sensors, we will see an end to people being run over as cars back out of driveways. There are fail safes, to the fail safes in the algorithms that determine what vehicles should do.

One of the most interesting articles I read this week was one from MIT Technology Review which asked the question, if a car finds itself in an environment when it has to decide between taking action that would impact the driver, or impact pedestrians, how should it behave ? Ideally the car would never be in a position it had to choose, but it is a demonstration of the ethical decisions auto makers will face and could form a key differentiation between manufacturers.

We also have to consider if our goal should be to simply creating cars that replicate human behaviour or can we improve on this. If a vehicle seriously understands its environment, why should it then pay attention to the line markings on the road if it deems the intersection to be empty? Shouldn’t it take the most efficient path, rather than adhere to the structure we created so humans don’t crash into each other? Should a connected car need to stop at traffic lights if it’s able to without a doubt determine there is no one else at or approaching the intersection (driver or pedestrian). This seems an inefficiency we can eliminate as we make this move to surrender understanding that computers will soon be better drivers than humans. Given how self-aware vehicles are about their own abilities (acceleration, braking performance, tyre pressure etc) it’s quite easy to see a day where cars are able to adapt to the road conditions and go as fast as is safe, dramatically reducing travel times.

Once driverless vehicles become a reality on our roads, we have to rethink how we spend our time in vehicles completely. Mercedes Benz has already begun this thought process, showing off a concept car at auto-shows this year. With opaque windows and seats that pivoted and allowed passengers to converse with each other eye-to-eye, having more engaging conversations. Commuting for an hour to work each day may actually be an enjoyable experience if you’re able to watch Netflix, catch up on Facebook and Twitter or finally send text messages safely. While consumers will love the opportunities afforded by driverless vehicles, the opportunity for business to have employees being productive on the road, is possibly even bigger.

The next 4-5 years are going to happen faster than you think, grab some popcorn, this is going to be one show you’ll want to watch closely.

More information at Tesla Motors and The Verge and Cnet.

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This post is authored by techAU staffers. Used rarely and sparingly when the source decided to keep their identity secret, or a guest author who isn't seeking credit.

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