This morning at 4am AEST (thanks timezones), Tesla held their latest event, the Tesla Autonomy Day. Livestreamed ot the world, the day was focused on providing analysts details on the progress the company has made in regards to autonomous driving.
During the almost 2.5 hour event, CEO Elon Musk shared the stage with some incredibly impressive employees, VP of hardware engineering at Tesla, Pete Bannon, responsible for the development of their custom full self driving chip.
Also on stage with Musk was the company’s senior director of AI, Andrej Karpathy who spoke elequently about the company’s approach and advantages in computer vision. Finally the event seen an explanation of software at scale, how Tesla tests with ‘shadow mode’ by Stuart Bowers, VP of Engineering at Tesla.
It was actually quite refreshing to see Tesla showcase some of the amazing engineering talent they have inside the company, arguably of their biggest assets. Tesla say they’re planning to increase the frequency of events like this in the future, so it’s likely we’ll see more from these guys.
When it comes to autonomy, today was Tesla’s coming out party. This was the event where they went into the most detail they ever have about the way they are gathering data from their fleet on the road, analysing edge cases where human intervention was required, then learning how to correct for that edge case and finally rolling out updates that improve the safety and driving experience.
While there were many bold predictions made about the future, perhaps one of the most significant was Musk’s estimation that in just a few years Tesla will likely sell vehicles without steering wheels. This is the first time we’ve really heard that from Tesla, an approach Google tried and quickly backed away from.
Every day that goes by, there are more Tesla vehicles on the road, collecting data of real world scenarios and that data (literally the frames from the cameras on the cars) are analysed, part by humans, but increasingly by AI, to determine a different course of action that would solve for that complex equation.
Musk made a very distinct separation between the development path and techniques used by Tesla (mainly computer vision + AI), versus those competitors that are relying on lidar or HD Maps of limited areas. Tesla’s solution can travel anywhere, anytime, and cater for never environments its never seen before, because its seen environments similar, millions of times before.
After watching the presentation today, its is abundently clear that Tesla has a massive advantage in having hundreds of thousands of cars on the road with the right cameras, radar and GPS that provides the dataset necessary to learn and improve rapdily.
When the learning of a possible solution are distributed to the fleet, they are first sent out in ‘Shadow mode’. This is the computer testing the new theory of how it would engage in response to specific conditions and if the test proves successful, an improvement on the latest build, that is then adopted for the fleet.
While other automakers have reached level 2 and 3 autonomy, Musk says they will all likely back away from Lidar and realise that only computer vision and vast resources (data and on-board processing) can achieve full autonomy. Tesla are currently the only ones to have an end-to-end solution in vehicles, from massive processing power in the car, to communication back to base, to the AI processing, they have created a technology stack that is the most likely to achieve level 4 and 5 autonomy first.
Once we reach that point where humans are no longer needed, Musk predicts that they’ll begin the process of deleting parts (which has a nice side benefit to further reducing costs). These include the steering wheel, pedals etc. You can see from the top image, we see a clean, uninterrupted dash in a Model 3.
While many car lovers will hate this idea, for those of us who’ve experienced autopilot today, it’s a pretty bording drive and you quickly gain trust in the system and as this technology improves, it’ll become clear the number of times you need to intervene drops to zero and deleting those components make sense.
It also makes sense as part of Tesla’s Ride Sharing service. We learnt today that Tesla owners will be able to enter and remove their vehicle from the ride sharing service, simply from the Tesla app on their phone. Having the vehicle go out and work for you when you don’t need it, dramatically changes the cost of ownership. Elon cheekily commented that based on the cost equation, you would be crazy to buy anything else than a Tesla.
Musk expects FSD to be complete by the end of this year with regulatory approval to be achieved in some juristictions next year. I strongly hope that Australian politicians, particularly Victorian and New South Wales run, as fast as they can to enact legislation to support this life saving technology. Importantly benchmarks need to be set to ensure data provided can clearly demonstrate cars without drivers are substantially safer than humans.
The event was long, but if you care at all about autonomous vehicles, then please, do yourself a favour and go watch this event.