The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)
August 30, 2019
Tesla is racing to be first to the market with a self-driving car made for the masses, promising to send as soon as this year an over-the-air software update that will turn hundreds of thousands of its vehicles into robo-cars.
But its push to put untested and unregulated features in the hands of its drivers is putting industry executives and regulators on edge.
Once the update arrives, Tesla vehicles will be able to drive themselves in a city the way they can perform highway cruising now, the company said. That means interpreting stop signs and traffic lights, making sharp turns and navigating stop-and-go urban traffic and other obstacles – a far more difficult task than navigating long, relatively straight stretches of highways.
The electric car manufacturer said it will do that without light detection and ranging – or lidar – complex sensors that use laser lights to map the environment, technology that most autonomous vehicle makers consider necessary. Even with lidar, many of those manufacturers have adopted a slow and deliberate approach to self-driving vehicles, with limited testing on public roads.
Tesla shows little sign of such caution. And because autonomous vehicles are largely self-regulated, no one can stop the automaker from moving ahead.
The Washington Post spoke with a dozen transportation officials and executives, including current and former safety regulators, auto industry executives, safety advocacy group leaders and autonomous-vehicle competitors.
In interviews, they expressed worries that Tesla’s plan to unleash robo-cars on the road on an expedited timeline could result in crashes, lawsuits and confusion. Plus, they said, Tesla’s promised “full self-driving” features fall short of industry standards for a true autonomous vehicle because humans will still need to be engaged at all times and ready to intervene in the beginning.
“That concern among the industry writ large is real and valid because what potentially happens is you’re going to see fatalities in the news attributed to Tesla vehicles and the response you’re going to get from certain policymakers – kind of a knee-jerk reaction,” said a former senior official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees the motor vehicle industry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That, in turn, will affect “other manufacturers who were a lot more deliberate, a lot more careful.”
Tesla has said it already has better real-world data than the rest of the industry. The company’s artificial intelligence program is being trained in real time by data collected from every Tesla already on the road. Every touch of the steering wheel helps inform the company’s software of how to react to various scenarios.
Tesla, which launched its first consumer vehicle just over a decade ago, was founded with the goal of bringing electric cars to the masses. It has outpaced most rivals for years, launching cars that have a range of up to 370 miles. Its Autopilot system, which keeps cars within their lanes, performs steering functions and can summon and park cars without the drivers controlling the steering wheel.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk wants to morph that product into his “full self-driving” suite, through a combination of the hardware already in its cars and over-the-air software changes that would add increased capabilities for city driving.
The company has also said that it has a demonstrated track record of safety, registering just one crash for every 2.87 million miles in which drivers had Autopilot engaged in the first three months of the year. That compares with normal cars crashing every 436,000 miles. But Autopilot is intended for use on highways and freeways, relatively uncomplicated roads with long straightaways that have fewer crashes, so it is unclear how comparable those statistics are. Tesla has declined to release more-detailed data.
Tesla cars also would eventually connect to the Tesla Network, equipping them to give rides when their owners aren’t using them, similar to the ride-hailing services of Uber and Lyft.
“By the middle of next year, we’ll have over a million Tesla cars on the road with full self-driving hardware,” with the ability to find the vehicle owners, drive them to their destination and park the vehicle, Musk said at Tesla’s Autonomy Investor Day in April. It will be at “a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention … meaning you could go to sleep.”
Meanwhile, competitors are racing to build their own autonomous taxi fleets expected to transport people without drivers within a few years. Companies including Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, as well as Lyft-backed Aptiv and GM Cruise are piloting autonomous vehicles in Arizona, Nevada and California.
Tesla is betting it can win the race with its software updates. Its approach represents a stark departure from the more conservative approaches by many companies testing self-driving cars. For instance, when Uber’s self-driving vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian, the company halted testing of its vehicles for months.
Tesla has raised eyebrows with its statements that autonomous driving can be achieved through a slimmed-down system that sheds all but the most critical equipment. Musk says he wants Tesla’s system to use a combination of cameras and radar sensors that triangulate a field of vision, similar to human eyesight, forgoing lidar.
Tesla executives said at an April conference that the company is using its radar and cameras to understand depth around its cars and real-world road conditions, as well as its Shadow Mode, which allows it to test how self-driving technologies perform without actually activating those features – something the company says lets it train and refine its networks without needing to do the same testing as other companies.
“Lidar is lame,” Musk said. Rivals are “all going to dump lidar. That’s my prediction. Mark my words.”
Faiz Siddiqui; Washington Post
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