Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) released its Autopilot feature two weeks ago and the launch was met with awe across both the tech and auto worlds. The initial awe was, as can be expected, followed by a litany of articles about how dangerous and irresponsible the software update was. Model S drivers can’t be trusted, said some, to use the feature properly and safely.
Tesla Motors may have a way to change that. The firm’s Autopilot system may not have been perfect at launch, and a large number of drivers were using it beyond its intended purpose, but the key feature of the software is already beginning to show its face. Tesla Motors’ Autopilot is beginning to learn, and it’s getting better.
Tesla Motors upgrades Autopilot
Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) has one major feature that most other cars don’t. The Model S is always connected to the net, and it’s able to download updates in order to improve itself. That’s how Tesla Motors managed to bring Autopilot features to thousands of cars in just a few days. Now, it seems, the firm has created a new kind of software update, specifically intended to improve the self-driving tech.
Fred Lambert over at Electrek.co says that Tesla Motors drivers have been reporting that their cars are getting better with each passing day.
One Model S driver on the Tesla Motors Club forums said “I noticed that on sharply curved ramp connecting I-80 west with CA-113 north in Davis, the first time it took the curve at full speed and wasn’t able to stay in lane resulting in a “take control immediately” alert. After a few more times on this curve with firm pressure on the steering wheel it’s now learned to slow down and today had no issue taking the curve. Definitely learning.”
One driver might have figured out how Tesla Motors has been doing that. It turns out that those Model S equipped with self-driving tech may be getting constant secret updates. Tesla Motors Club forum member Coiled says that they saw a fairly large download on their network in the middle of the night. The 30-35 MB update may be what’s making Autopilot better so quickly.
There is some argument about whether Tesla Motors is sending out unannounced updates, or whether each car is learning by itself. It seems more likely that the Model S is taking advantage of the “fleet learning” of the Autopilot system, but we won’t know for sure until Elon Musk confirms.
The biggest change that Model S owners have reported so far is that their car is learning when not to leave the road. On release Autopilot would often become confused at of ramps on the highway, and attempt to get off the road. That’s happening less and less.
Here’s the problem with Autopilot
Tesla Motors is making Autopilot better, but that doesn’t totally alleviate the risks of the system. The firm may not be held responsible for mistakes made while the system is active, though that’s still to be tested in courts, but problems could cut deeply into the firm’s brand.
Some of the early critics of the Autopilot system weren’t worried about its features, they were worried about some of the irresponsible drivers that might be using the software. Martin Bryant, over at The Next Web, said that “people have been treating their vehicles as fully self-driving cars, with dangerous results.” “It’s Tesla’s fault,” he added.
Other media outlets stayed away from prescribing fixes for the Autopilot rollout, but there was wide coverage of footage showing Model S drivers using the system in dangerous ways.
Mr. Bryant said that Tesla Motors should think about only giving the update to people who visit a Tesla Motors dealership. That way, in his view, Tesla Motors could be sure that those using Autopilot were well-trained in how to do so safely.
Tesla Motors method of making the Autopilot system safer makes that idea less appealing, but that doesn’t mean the Autopilot rollout was perfect. There are real problems with giving such a powerful, and potentially dangerous, system to so many people at once. Luckily, Tesla Motors appears to be making the car safer and safer.
Tesla Motors is fixing problems
There may be a certain amount of placebo effect going with some Model S owners in relation to the Autopilot update, but it seems clear that Tesla Motors is fixing the system with each passing day. This is in line with what Elon Musk promised when he showed off the features of the system for the first time.
On October 2014 Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA), lead by CEO Elon Musk, held a press conference to describe and explain the self-driving features that it was rolling out to the Model S. Mr. Musk said that the system would get better based on “high precision maps” that would be built by the fleet of cars as they drove.
That’s clearly not all that’s going on, however. In a tweet on October 23 Elon Musk said “Autopilot 1.01 coming soon: curve speed adaption, controller smoothness, better lane holding on poor roads, improved fleet learning!”
Some users, like the one quoted above, are reporting changes that are more than just improved maps. Slowing down into curves seems to be coming to the Model S right now, and it’s not clear if Tesla Motors is going to label changes to Autopilot, or simply roll out incremental updates on a constant basis.
The lack of a slow down into curves was one of the Autopilot problems that caused anxiety when early adopters first got their hands on the system.
During the conference at which he explained the system, Mr. Musk called each Model S driver an “expert trainer.” He said that the system could add up to 1 million miles per day of new data, and weekly improvements could be noticed by those letting their Model S drive for them.
This is powerful, and in the car world it’s a completely novel idea. The stealth updates to the Autopilot system are the major advantage that the firm has over the rest of the world’s car makers. It means that by the time they get their act together to compete with Tesla Motors, the Model S will already be very far ahead.
As far as the risks of the update go, it’s clear that Tesla Motors is making the system safer, and more relaxing, on a regular basis. What’s not clear is whether the update was dangerous in the first place. Regulators obviously thought it was well thought out enough to okay the rollout, but we’ll have to wait and see how the system adapts in the long term to be sure.