Tesla Motors Inc. and Google are taking entirely different approaches to delivering self-driving cars. Google wants to make cars fully autonomous before it starts selling them. Tesla Motors on the other hand believes that making gradual improvements in driver-assistance systems on their popular EVs will lead to the fully autonomous vehicles (AV) of the future. Both companies have valid points in support of their theses.
The case for building AVs from the ground up versus the case for cars equipped with high-level driver assisted systems will determine the speed and the economies of when EV will go mainstream. For instance, making upgrades to driver-assisted systems will adapt humans to the concept of handing over their lives to computers and metals. In contrast, building a complete AV from the ground up will make it faster to rollout the tech by forming a base standard for new cars.
Google and Tesla are not alone in the quest to deliver autonomous vehicles. Apple Inc is working on autonomous vehicles as is ride service, Uber. Other car makers including Mercedes, Audi and BMW offer vehicles with limited self-driving features.
Chris Umson is the Director of Self-Driving Cars at Google in a Ted Talk in June has the following to say about self-driving cars, “wisdom would say that we’ll just take these driver assistance systems and we’ll kind of push them and improve them, and over time, they’ll turn into self-driving cars. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s like me saying that if I work really hard at jumping, one day I’ll be able to fly.”
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors on the other hand believes that making upgrades in the hardware and software of driver-assistance systems is the way to go. During the 2015 GPU Technology Conference in March Musk discussed the upgrades being made in making Tesla’s autonomous, he says, “You kind of need, the sensory computing base, and then you can just keep updating software…we now have active cruise control, we use radar and camera fusion to track the car in front of you… It’s going to get smarter and smarter even with the current hardware suite“.
Google Thesis at Work
Google’s plan to build AVs from the ground up has birthed the self-driving Lexus RX450h SUVs and those cute Panda-like cars that are making their ways round its Mountain View campus. The Lexus SUVs were the result of Google’s first foray into making AVs. Google bought the SUVs and started giving them self-driving features. The cute cars are the result of the plan to build a new fleet of self-driving vehicles from the ground up.
Google’s self-driving project seems to be growing nicely and the firm has set up a new firm for the project. Google Auto is listed as a maker of passenger vehicles. The firm is listed as the maker of 23 auto-drive Lexus cars as well as the new cute self-driving cars that are logging miles in Mountain View.
Tesla’s Thesis at Work
Tesla’s plan to adding autonomous features to its cars is also working towards the end goal of having a fully AV. It started with driver-assisted systems such as cruise control and assisted breaking among others. Now, Tesla is testing Autopilot 7.0 for Beta testers after Musk hinted that he was “almost ready to release highway autosteer and parallel autopark software update.”
Musk agrees that the current autopilot is still limited. He says, “you can’t, like, turn on the autopilot and go to sleep.” Yet, he strongly believes that “several years from now, there will be a fail-operational autopilot with redundant sensors and everything that’s needed for someone to literally go to sleep and wake up at their…”
NHTSA, Driverless Cars, New Laws
As the race to deliver a self-driving car goes on between Google , Tesla , and other carmakers, safety will be the key factor that will determine the winning thesis. A study just released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that a fully automated vehicle might be better than driver-assisted systems.
For one, NHTSA notes that drivers might forget that they need to pay attention even when driver assisted systems are in control of the car. The agency notes, “when drivers shift their attention to other tasks in a self-driving vehicle, such as sending an e-mail, “their readiness to respond to driving-related prompts and alerts can be delayed.”
In addition, NHTSA says the advent of self-driving cars will pose new issues in the face of current laws and the need to draw up new laws for a fast-changing industry. An August 31 statement from the agency reads, “The agency is in regular contact with the many companies that are developing such technologies, and we are working with all of them to help ensure that these innovations realize their safety potential.”
A third-person opinion
Raj Rajkumar, one of the pioneers of self-driving cars at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University believes that Google’s approach to self-driving cars might run not be practical. He says, “Self-driving cars will evolve step-by-step, with humans staying in charge for a long time to come.”
Yet, he suggests that the progress of self-driving cars while humans are in charge might be risky and Google’s plan to make a complete AV before rolling it out to the market might be smarter. In his words, “The better the tech gets… the less reliable the driver is going to get.”
Raj’s views proves to be right in the light of the last reported accident that involved a Google Car. On August 20, a Google Car in self-driving mode began slowing down to yield to a pedestrian. However, the test driver on board followed protocol in taking over manually, only to break too hard. The car behind rear-ended the Google Car because of the hard breaking and of course, he was too close.
However, a review of the incident shows that car would have stopped safely if the autonomous mode was left to handle the event. Google in a statement noted, “our software might have created some extra margin in a situation where fractions of inches and seconds mattered”.