November 3rd, 2018 by Zachary Shahan
There have been a couple of big Tesla autonomy announcements in the past week or so. First of all, Tesla pushed out a Navigate on Autopilot feature. Basically, the update lets Tesla cars go from onramp to offramp without driver intervention — just based on the route you have in the Tesla navigation system and whatever magic Tesla engineers have packed behind that touchscreen.
More recently, Elon Musk told us that you can soon “walk your Tesla” as if it’s a dog, and control it like a kid’s remote-controlled car. These fun and useful improvements will come via an update to the Summon feature.
It’s cool to explore the possibilities of each of these improvements and get excited, but there’s something more dramatic waiting in the shadows just between those two announcements. There’s something sneakily hiding between the parking lot and the highway. Basically, we’re a few autonomous avenues away from Tesla vehicles being fully self-driving vehicles.
Think about it: Your car can navigate a parking lot on its own to come to you. It can also drive from onramp to offramp on the highway without your intervention (well, once you’ve confirmed enough times that it can do what it thinks it should do at critical junctures in the trip). What’s in the middle of those two driving atmospheres? In some situations — say, a hotel just off the highway and a home or workplace near one as well — there’s almost nothing left blocking door-to-door autonomous driving. In more complicated situations, the car basically needs to find its way through cities by following common traffic rules and whatever freak occurrences life can throw at it.
This is also where Tesla’s approach to self-driving tech separates the auto–software–battery–solar company from companies commonly considered competitors in this space, like Waymo (aka Google/Alphabet). Tesla employs a fundamentally different system. Waymo’s self-driving system is based on precise mapping and just knowing everything there is to know about traffic rules and common traffic occurrences in a relatively small geographical area. Tesla’s self-driving system is based on the cars learning to drive like humans and learning to respond to road rules and surprises in the same way a person would. In other words, it is about driving more like a human than a robot with really good maps.
This gets a little bit confusing, and after talking to self-driving tech experts, I’ve discovered that even expert outsiders don’t have a great picture of what Tesla is doing behind the scenes. We know there is shadow learning going on — Tesla’s autonomous driving systems learn from their human drivers every day — but how much are they learning and what details are they paying attention to? We know that Tesla uses neural networks to speed up and improve the learning process, and that new hardware will make those neural networks much better, but we don’t have much clarity on the practical stage of those neural networks, the challenges they’re facing, and near- or mid-term projections for where they will take Tesla autonomy.
— Lex Fridman (@lexfridman) October 9, 2018
Updated data on total Tesla vehicle deliveries by Autopilot hardware: 443k total Teslas, 279k version 2, 114k version 1, 49k without AP hardware. @elonmusk https://t.co/v34JLgLIyg pic.twitter.com/J0xukW3nMt
— Lex Fridman (@lexfridman) October 8, 2018
Recent data from Tesla and MIT indicate Tesla Autopilot has traveled 1.5 billion miles. It was also recently revealed that Waymo self-driving vehicles have driven 10 million miles. It’s been a while since I took a math class, but I recall billion being much bigger than million.
Like I said above, these systems are actually not the same. They use fundamentally different methods for pursuing a self-driving future. But the thing about Tesla’s system is that it is learning from humans how to driving like humans — except safer thanks to better attention spans, quicker reaction times, and better vision. Apparently, the system is now good enough to handle parking lots and highways. As those autonomous miles keep growing exponentially, expect Tesla to lock up the few remaining dots between the parking lot and the highway.
On the recent quarterly conference call, Elon Musk indicated that Tesla’s hardware for autonomous driving dwarfs the hardware in any “comparable” cars. It is getting ready to make that “small” leap from driving around the parking lot and driving on the highway to driving anywhere. Maybe people who paid for Full Self Driving at the time they bought their cars are getting a bit impatient (the same thing happened when Autopilot was first rolled out), but any irritation about the wait is likely to be wiped out as soon as Tesla sends the over-the-air update that allows owners to download and use the first versions of Full Self Driving. When those same drivers are some years later getting picked up from work or having their car make some money for them by driving people around while it’s bored, I imagine they will have long forgotten that they had to wait a few months or even a year to eat the first fruits of their Full Self Driving purchase.
You may recall that back in July 2016 Musk indicated that Tesla’s Autopilot system needed at least 1 billion miles of real-world driving in order to get out of beta mode. However, it wasn’t clear exactly how many miles beyond 999 million Tesla would need. “With less than 1B miles, there simply isn’t enough data. 1B is a necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition,” Musk tweeted back then.
Are we there yet? My understanding is that the answer is basically yes, or almost.
Aside from the pure tech aspect and when Tesla feels ready, though, there are of course regulations that will have to enable different levels of self driving, including full self driving without a human supervisor (aka driver) who is alert and able to take over if needed. The tech may be ready next year, but when will you really be allowed to send your car out to pick up some avocados or shuttle passengers around the city for a few extra bucks?
We’ll see, and chances are high Elon will break the news via a tweet.
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