Washington — Tesla Motors Inc.’s entrance into the race to build a fully self-driving car has the potential to scramble an already contentious debate about whether autonomous vehicles should be allowed to operate alongside traditional autos on U.S. roads.
The company said last week that it will begin equipping all of its cars with hardware that will allow for fully autonomous driving, despite the fact that its existing “Autopilot” feature already has been involved in a crash that’s believed to be the first fatality of a driver using a car driving in a semi-autonomous mode.
Critics have cast doubt on Tesla’s ability to move past the controversy about its semi-autonomous features to develop fully self-driving cars in the near future.
“This may have been a bit of hype,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group. “The announcement was that they’re going to put self-driving hardware on Teslas. To me, what’s important is having software that is demonstrably safe. I don’t think Tesla has that software.”
Tesla said in a blog post posted on Oct. 19 that, “As of today, all Tesla vehicles produced in our factory — including Model 3 — will have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” By contrast, Ford hasn’t promised to deliver a driverless car until 2021.
“Self-driving vehicles will play a crucial role in improving transportation safety and accelerating the world’s transition to a sustainable future,” Tesla’s statement said. “Full autonomy will enable a Tesla to be substantially safer than a human driver, lower the financial cost of transportation for those who own a car and provide low-cost, on-demand mobility for those who do not.”
Simpson said Tesla may be over-promising on its ability to deliver fully self-driving cars sooner than other automakers.
“It’s hard for me to see how adding a bunch of hardware gets them across the bridge to true self-driving,” Simpson said. “It’s the software that really matters.”
The announcement from Tesla about self-driving cars came as the company posted its first profit in more than three years, with net income of $21.9 million in the third quarter. Tesla said Wednesday the profit was driven by record production, deliveries and revenue.
The good financial news for Tesla follows a summer that was dominated by discussion of the death of a driver who was using the company’s autopilot mode, which raised questions about the safety of self-driving autos. The Tesla vehicle that was involved in the fatal crash collided with a semi-trailer that turned left in front of the car, undetected by the vehicle’s “Autopilot” feature. Radars on the Tesla car could not distinguish the side of the white truck from the sky.
Consumer groups such as Simpson’s organization seized upon the deadly crash to argue that Tesla is rushing self-driving cars to market, even before the company’s recent announcement.
“An autopilot whose sensors cannot distinguish between the side of a white truck and a bright sky simply is not ready to be deployed on public roads,” Simpson wrote in a letter to Tesla CEO Elon Musk in July. “Tesla should immediately disable the autopilot feature on all your vehicles until it can be proven to be safe. At a minimum, autopilot must be disabled until the complete results of NHTSA’s investigation are released.”
In its latest announcement Tesla promised to test the self-driving hardware before making it available to consumers, although critics like Simpson have accused the company of using early adopters as “guinea pigs.”
“Before activating the features enabled by the new hardware, we will further calibrate the system using millions of miles of real-world driving to ensure significant improvements to safety and convenience,” the company said in its post.
Supporters of self-driving vehicles laud Tesla and other firms for moving toward fully autonomous vehicles, even as fans of autonomous vehicles have called for federal regulators to draft a national framework of rules to ensure safety.
“Computers and cars have merged together,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said during a speech Monday about the future of mobility at Automation Alley in Troy, according to a transcript of his remarks.
“Certain high-end vehicles on the market today have more than 100 million lines of code,” Peters continued. “That’s nearly five times the lines of code in an F-35 fighter jet and nearly 10 times that of an Android mobile device operating system.”
Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said Tesla’s move to install self-driving hardware on its autos, “Will provide a foundation for fully autonomous driving capabilities at some future point, once the software is validated and the regulatory requirements are met. It’s a big up-front commitment to self-driving technology that other automakers may not be willing to make at this point,” Brauer said.
Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, added that Tesla may be able to split the difference between self-driving fans who want to develop cars that are so capable of driving themselves that they don’t need steering wheels and brake pedals, and more conservative supporters of the technology who want to have an option for humans to take control of self-driving cars in emergencies.
“Tesla is providing a vehicle right at the sweet spot of where consumers want to be — a Level 4-plus human driving option, since the vehicles will have pedals and steering wheels,” Lindland said, referring to the Department of Transportation’s classification for fully autonomous vehicles.
She added: “Kelley Blue Book’s recent study showed that Level 4 is the most appealing version of autonomy for consumers, even if it’s not the safest.”
Autonomous driving levels
Level 0: This one is pretty basic. The driver (human) controls it all: steering, brakes, throttle, power. It’s what you've been doing all along.
Level 1: This semi-autonomous level means that most functions are still controlled by a driver, but some (like braking) can be done automatically by the car.
Level 2: In level 2, at least 2 functions are automated, like cruise control and lane-centering. It means that the “driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time.” The driver must be still always be ready to take control of the vehicle, however. So, level 2 means two functions automated. Easy to remember, right?
Level 3: Drivers are still necessary in level 3 cars, but are able to completely shift “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. It means that the driver is still present, but is not required to monitor the situation in the same way it does for previous levels. Jim McBride, autonomous vehicles expert at Ford, said, “the biggest demarcation is between Levels 3 and 4.” He's focused on getting Ford straight to Level 4, since Level 3, which involves transferring control from car to human, can often pose difficulties. “We’re not going to ask the driver to instantaneously intervene—that's not a fair proposition.”
Level 4: This is what is meant by “fully autonomous.” According to the DOT, level 4 vehicles are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” It’s what Tesla says will be available by 2018.
*Level 5: It should be noted that some organizations, like the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), have their own charts that refer to “Level 5” vehicles. This refers to a fully-autonomous vehicle that does not have any option for human driving—no steering wheel or controls.