The dream of auto-driving cars has been a staple of science fiction for decades, with cities of the future and alien metropolises being filled with vehicles that transport people across huge distances, effortlessly negotiating anything that happened in their way. The possibility of driverless and self-driving cars has come tantalisingly close, only to recede with a seemingly increasing number of incidents may well sound a death knell on automated driving for some time.
Tesla’s testing times
Tesla, the high-tech company based in Palo Alto, California, has experienced a number of incidents in their cars with highly publicized and screaming headlines painting them as potential death-traps. In the latest incident, a Tesla Model S with Autopilot engaged crashed into the rear of a fire truck that was stopped at a traffic light in South Jordan, Utah. The tesla was moving at around 97 km/h and did not appear to brake or attempt to avoid the impact according to statements by eyewitnesses. The Tesla driver admitted that she was focused on her phone prior to the crash and didn’t see the fire truck. There again, neither did the car’s autopilot system!
Automotive technologies are heading further towards handing more control to the car itself; many modern cars offer a self-parking facility and parking sensors, motion, and anti-collision are now an everyday feature. From these, it is just a short leap to self-driving cars and trends in the automotive industry are driving ever closer to autonomous driving as the preferred option. The one element that ties it all together is the software that controls everything, and that’s where Tesla hoped to have the edge over its rivals.
Autopilot in name, not nature
Both the Tesla Model S and Model X have the Autopilot feature. This software driven quality has been a major selling point for the company and sets the cars aside from other vehicles with a high degree of software intervention. However, definitions become important whereas it is necessary to define what the term “autopilot” actually means. In terms of the Tesla models, it means “driver assist,” not “driver replacement” and this could be the root of all the problems that the company is experiencing.
Basis of a business
Tesla are a company that prides itself on cutting-edge technology based on electricity. The whole electrical angle came from Elon Musk’s appreciation of a Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla, inventor of the Tesla Coil which is an electrical resonant transformer circuit that he designed. Images of Tesla sitting near the huge electric arcs produced by the coil became defining images of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was these images that captured the imagination of Musk and spurred on his interest in creating electric vehicles with a high technology edge.
Developing almost everything from new let Musk’s company have complete control over many of the components and assemblies that went into the cars. Much of the innovation went in to electric powertrain, while there was also considerable effort with the ContiSport Contact 5P high performance tyres outfitted with a sound absorbing polyurethane foam attached to the inner structure.
This feature allows the tyres to maintain the same level of grip, steering response and wet performance, but also roll with much less noise. Accordingly, a huge amount of design effort went in to the Autopilot anti-collision system, but it might now seem that it wasn’t sufficient.
Self-driving and self-parking features
The Tesla software system uses an array of eight cameras to give the car a 360° vision for a range of up to 250 metres from the car, as well as a forward-facing radar. This combination constantly feeds data to the central unit and helps contribute to self-parking and autosteer features together with anti-collision and emergency braking systems, effectively making the car self-driving.
However, the spate of recent incidents and collisions have cast a shadow over the system, and while investigations are ongoing, there is a worry that the system may not be able to identify certain everyday features either fast enough, or at all. There is mounting evidence that the software may not be able to recognise either stationary objects of some moving objects that are difficult to distinguish from the background.
Autopilots’ makers sending a message
Tesla is convinced that it is an issue of calibration of the software and that there is no real issue with it overall, but many critics are suggesting that the whole system may need an overhaul. The incidents – four in the United States and one in China – are likely to lead for calls that the Autopilot be used as driver assist only rather than a fully autonomous system that runs the car by itself.
In response, Tesla and other car companies with similar systems, such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo, warn drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times. This seems like the best advice until something more concrete can come from either the investigations, or the Tesla company itself.
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