How Close is Tesla to Driverless-ness?

Connected Cars Could Be Just a Software Update Away from Being Autonomous

Man in Tesla driving with no hands
Reporter Robert Duffer drives using no hands or feet as he test drives the software-updated Tesla Model S P90D, featuring limited hands-free steering, making the Tesla the closest thing on the market to an autonomous-driving enable vehicle. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Car manufacturers worldwide are increasingly producing “connected cars” and employing cloud technology, which can automatically update their software throughout their vast fleets of vehicles. Insiders believe that connecting cars to the Internet in this way will bring the biggest change to the automobile industry since Ford’s mass production, The Huffington Post reports.

Updating Tesla’s Autopilot Features Via the Cloud

Tesla announced this week that its semi-autonomous autopilot feature is now approved in every country in the world where its vehicles are available.

In October 2015, Tesla added an autopilot feature to their fleet, enabling hands- and feet-free driving in stop-and-go traffic, at highway speeds, and during parallel parking, The Wall Street Journal reported. At the time, Tesla announced autopilot was available everywhere but Japan, but Forbes now reports that Hong Kong soon disabled both the lane-change feature and auto-steering because their Transportation Department hadn’t approved the features. But now autopilot has been approved in every market they’ve entered. The approval is important for Tesla, especially in Hong Kong, as their Model S is the best selling sedan there, reports Forbes.

Interior dashboard of Tesla with Range Rover in background
Photo from Tesla Motors Club

After the October introduction of autopilot, other issues arose, necessitating cloud updates. A rash of frightening videos with Tesla owners driving in dangerous situations hit the web, leading the automaker to reconsider its technology, The Wall Street Journal reports. Tesla’s autopilot mode is explicitly designed for use with an engaged and active driver, but many drivers were employing autopilot and then reading and even riding in the back seat—all while traveling down residential streets.

What happened next foreshadows the big changes soon to come to the entire auto industry: instead of recalling every vehicle with the autopilot system and making costly, time-consuming updates, this January, Tesla instead added restrictions to the autopilot feature via the cloud–instantly and completely fixing the issue. Now Tesla vehicles can’t use autopilot anywhere but on highways with center dividers, and they cannot travel more than five miles over the posted speed limit. Tesla also reemphasized the importance of driver engagement, even while using autopilot features. While Tesla is currently the only car manufacturer with this level of autonomous driving technology, we can expect other automakers to soon follow suit, completely changing the way we think about our personal vehicles.

Instead of recalling its fleet, Tesla updated its autopilot feature via the cloud - an instant fix.

Tesla Adds “Summon” Parking Via Cloud Update

Tesla’s software update in January also included their much-hyped Summon feature which, according to The Wall Street Journal, “allows the owner to park or fetch his or her vehicle remotely from a distance of up to 39 feet.” Tesla called the Summon update a “baby step” in their march toward driverless vehicles.

So far, Tesla recommends limiting use of the Summon feature to private property because they can’t guarantee that the vehicle will see every obstacle. Additionally, drivers must be nearby and direct the car to park using either the key fob or Tesla’s smartphone app. At home, Teslas can open and close garage doors and park themselves inside.

Man driving into light

One Software Update Away from Autonomous Driving?

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the ways in which automakers are employing the capabilities of the cloud is how these technologies are moving the auto industry toward autonomous vehicles. Tesla is leading the pack, already demonstrating the possibilities of the Internet-based software updates that will be necessary for driverless vehicles.

“Tesla’s ability to alter its vehicles through over-the-air software updates remains the biggest feature distinguishing it from its competitors,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

Car companies in general, and Tesla in particular, are still working out the logistics and technology of autonomous driving, but it’s closer than it may seem. Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, told The Wall Street Journal the company expects fully autonomous vehicles that can drive themselves from Los Angeles to New York with no human intervention in just 24 to 36 months.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk expects vehicles to drive themselves from LA to NY within 24-36 months.

Autopilot and Auto Insurance: Still Getting There

In May 2015, when Tesla began teasing its autopilot software updates, Musk emphasized that while his company is pushing the boundaries of legal definitions in many areas, as The Wall Street Journal reported, for now, Tesla will require driver engagement for all vehicle-assisted autopilot functions, thereby keeping the driver liable for any damages that might occur. For instance, with Summon, the driver must be fewer than 10 feet away, and must direct the vehicle to park, watching for potential mistakes and stopping the autopilot mode before damage occurs.

Other potential risks of connected cars that the auto industry will have to contend with are software vulnerabilities, as we’ve seen with cases of vehicle hacking. While automakers work to secure connected vehicles, insurance companies will have to contend with the potential real-world ramifications and may deem connected cars a great risk until proven otherwise.

While autonomously piloted vehicles offer clear safety improvements over human drivers (whose errors account for 94 percent of all crashes), their potential vulnerabilities (like software errors or hacking) are still largely untested in the real world. We can certainly continue to expect big changes in the auto insurance industry as cars connect to more “things” and autonomous vehicles increase their presence on our roads.