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The Autonomous Car: Tesla & The Winding Road

We kick off 2017 with a new series on autonomous vehicles and, for the short term at least, the focus will be on Tesla simply because they’ve moved the needle the quickest and have a billion+ driver-tested miles under their belt already. I’m reminded of a quip from a pilot friend who said, "Anybody can fly a plane at 30,000 feet with autopilot. What separates the living from the dead is what you do when something goes wrong." A recent example here.

A few of you may be reading about autonomous cars for the first time so let’s start with the basics. We’re talking about vehicles that can drive themselves without user intervention. The latest Tesla vehicles are basically Linux computers on wheels with one or more 500 horsepower electric motors. This Tesla magic is performed using lots of state-of-the-art hardware including a supercomputer capable of 8 trillion deep learning operations per second, 8 cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors plus loads of software. The car must have current maps, must know the rules of the road, must obey speed limits and stop signs, and hopefully won’t run over pedestrians or bicyclists. It also must learn in realtime from driver interactions and make adjustments on the fly. The design must work on sunny days in the Arizona desert and frigid days with two feet of snow in Buffalo and rainy days in Seattle.

The hard part comes when a child runs into the street from behind parked cars and the only two choices are killing the child or swerving into another lane of traffic where an 18-wheeler is barreling towards you at an excessive rate of speed. What would you do? Do you know what your autonomous car would do? Will the manufacturer tell you? With that introduction, let’s begin with this Tesla video and the Elon Musk sales pitch from Twitter:

With the expiration of our lease last month on a surprisingly good Cadillac ELR, we swapped vehicles. So you’ll be following the Tesla adventure in realtime from behind the wheel of a second-generation Tesla Model S P90D. This Tesla has all the latest and greatest autopilot and self-driving hardware that money can buy. What Tesla barely mentioned was that none of it works. It gets worse. The windshield wipers don’t turn on when it rains, and the lights don’t turn on in the dark. In short, as delivered last month and putting aside the electric motors, it had about the same technology advancements as my 1968 Pontiac GTO.

The good news is Tesla pushes updates to the cars regularly using AT&T’s 4G/LTE network or even WiFi if you happen to have it in your garage. That’s the primary reason we bought a Tesla. And, by the way, the Tesla phones home regularly with a detailed report about your whereabouts and your car’s status. Divorce lawyers will have a field day with Tesla data.

The other thing Tesla didn’t mention was that, with the second generation Tesla’s (also known as AP2 or HW2), Tesla engineers are basically starting over even with the autopilot software. Minutes before the 2017 New Year, Tesla released a firmware update to 1,000 vehicles (all in California) that enabled minimal self-driving functionality between speeds of 17 and 35 miles per hour on highways only. If you were one of the lucky ones and happen to live near a nursing home with nothing but elderly drivers on the freeway, this was great news. For a sobering experience, read the early feedback posted on the Tesla Forum. Scary!

I think it would be fair to say that 2017 is starting off a little bumpy for Tesla. Not only are some owners that shelled out over $100,000 fuming over misrepresentations from Tesla sales staff, but there also are about a half million people that forked over $1,000 deposits on the so-called affordable Tesla, the Model 3. As you can see from the Self-Driving and Autopilot software price tags above, nobody is going to get a Tesla Model 3 for $35,000. If that was your plan, apply for your refund now. We, of course, expected a fun ride as a Tesla pioneer, and Tesla is giving every indication that it will be a very wild and sometimes frustrating adventure. The great news is that a Tesla API already is available and has an enthusiastic group of developers and fellow Tesla owners. The API will tell you almost anything you want to know about your car including its location. You can even control your Tesla using an Amazon Echo. Start reading and stay tuned. 2017 is going to be fun! In our next chapter, we’ll walk you through using the impressive API feature set with PHP. Enjoy!

Published: Monday, January 9, 2017

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1 Comment

  1. I have my Model 3 on order and hoping that you help them debug the issues so that at the end of this year I get a fully functioning car 🙂

    The $81 + $49 / month … is that in addition to the $10K or is that the additional cost for those features in the lease?

    [WM: Hopefully, all of the software issues will be sorted out long before your Model 3 hits the road. The $81 and $49 numbers are the lease prices. If you’ve paid the full costs for the features on the front end, there would be no recurring charges as I understand it. That’s certainly the way it works with the Model S and X vehicles.]

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