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Tesla rolls out not-so-'autonomous' software

22 Oct 15  | Automotive
Tesla rolled out its not-so-'autonomous' driving software, and the hands are off the wheel!

Autonomous driving is an extremely exciting concept – you could catch an extra hour of kip on the way to work, finish an email on the way to a meeting, actually keep an eye on the kids in the back seats… the possibilities are tantalising.

So when Tesla last week enabled its ‘Autopilot’ systems in its Model S all-electric sedans, Tesla owners got more than a little bit excited. The wireless update of these vehicles to Version 7.0 of the Tesla software allows cars – with the proper pre-installed equipment – to steer, switch lanes and manage speed.

However, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly warned that ‘Autopilot’ does not, in fact, provide fully autonomous driving, and that drivers should not, for example, be taking both hands from the wheel while in motion.

Despite this, a number of Tesla drivers immediately hit the roads to test out the new software, videoing themselves driving down highways with their hands in the air (or reading!) and posting their results to YouTube, which lead to a number of dangerous situations and near accidents.

The software does seem remarkably effective, but it is clearly not quite ready to be left entirely to its own devices to get us to work or that lunch date! Tesla do refer to the current roll-out of the system as a beta-test, but one does question whether a beta-test should be taking place on open, public roads.

The Autopilot system uses a combination of radar, a forward-looking camera and 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors, working with fast processors, and has a warning system to alert drivers when it’s lost its way and needs a little help.

Khobi Brooklyn, a Tesla spokesperson, likened the Autopilot system to an airplane’s version of the functionality in an email: “Tesla is very clear with what we’re building, features to assist the driver on the road. Similar to the autopilot function in airplanes, drivers need to maintain control and responsibility of their vehicle while enjoying the convenience of Autopilot in Model S.”

Alain Kornhauser, director of the transportation program at Princeton University, pointed out that drivers need “to show some respect, because you’re driving a lethal weapon.”

“I think it’s wonderful that Tesla has gone out there with this technology, but they have hyped Autopilot a little bit too much,” Kornhauser says. Contrast the Tesla Autopilot system with, say, the Distronic Plus suite of assisted driving technologies that Kornhauser’s Mercedes-Benz S-550 runs. This system has been available in S- and E-Class vehicles since 2013, but the company has been careful to avoid terms like ‘auto’ or ‘automatic’, referring instead to the technology as ‘assistive’.

Google, on the other hand, are fully committed to the complete autonomy model, and as such, are performing intensely rigorous testing before rolling out their product to the general public.

Doug Newcomb, president of the C3Group, which provides consulting and conferences on connected cars, agrees that Google and other mainstream automakers are being far more careful than Tesla.

“This is Tesla’s MO”, he says. “As a technology company, they’re pushing things more than other companies.”

He adds that Tesla’s attitude is ‘somewhat cavalier’ in not fully acknowledging the possible uses of their technology. “With new technology, people are going to use it in ways it wasn’t intended. But in this case, you’re not talking about a smart phone or computer. You’re talking about a dangerous vehicle.”

Paul McGuinness, one of CBSbutler’s Senior Consultants who specialises, among other things, in placing specialists and engineers within the automotive industry, is watching the innovations of companies such as Tesla and Google closely:

“Cars have utilised more and more technology over recent years under the term ‘Driver Assist’ which have by and large been warmly received by the consumer public. Cruise control, parking sensors, automatic lights and wipers and blind spot monitors are all seen as the norm when driving a modern car. Trying to push any vehicles system to the limit and expressing concern when you find and exceed that limit detracts from the efforts that Tesla and other manufacturers have undertaken in order to improve safety and user experience.

I, for one, am a fan of what companies like Tesla and Google are trying to achieve in their quest for technological advances; it generates a wealth of jobs, learning opportunities and inspiration for a generation of engineers.

The more interesting question relating to autonomous vehicles asks “Humans vs Computers – who makes more errors?”, and that is one topic I see being debated for a long time to come.”

Interested in working within the automotive and engineering industries? Give Paul a call on 01737 821049 or send your CV to


What do you think?

Is Tesla being irresponsible or innovative?

Do they have a responsibility to make sure their products are safe before releasing them to the general public, or is their only task to create new technology, and let the bureaucrats sort out the mess?

Let us know in the comments.

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