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Google believes it can have self-driving cars on the road within five years, and it isn’t messing around. The company’s prototype robots have safely driven nearly a million miles across California, and Google is gearing up for large-scale testing for self-driving cars over the next year or two.
However, some Tesla owners may get a peek at the self-driving features a little sooner than that. Tesla has its own autonomous car program, and it’s making strong progress — so strong that Tesla wants to release some of those features in an over-the-air update this summer.
According to Tesla founder Elon Musk,
“We’re pretty excited about the progress we’re making there. The main test route that we’re evaluating is the San Francisco to Seattle route, and we’re now almost able to travel all the way from San Francisco to Seattle without the driver touching any controls at all.”
That’s impressive, although I should emphasize that this a much more modest accomplishment than you might think. The route from Seattle to San Francisco consists almost entirely of freeways, which are relatively straightforward. There are few surprises on freeway — no stoplights, no ambiguous turns, and no pedestrians. Navigating within the urban jungle is a much bigger challenge, and Tesla has a long way to go before they can rival Google’s autonomous car program there. There’s a lot at stake: whoever gets there first is going to change the future of transportation.
Tesla seems to understand this, and stresses the limits of the planned update. The update will provide a kind of smart cruise control that can be enabled on the freeway, allowing the car to stay in its lane and match speed with traffic. The car will switch back into manual mode as soon as you exit.
The company is also planning to roll out a feature that will allow users to dismiss the car to park itself, or to summon the car remotely from their phone causing the empty car to turn itself on and come find them. Musk notes that this is not currently legal to do on public roads, and should be used only on privately owned parking lots.
Even with the limited current feature set, some legal analysts worry that Tesla may be crossing a regulatory line. Karl Brauer, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book, feels that the company is on shaky ground:
“There’s a reason other automakers haven’t gone there. Best case scenario, it’s unclear. If you’re an individual that starts doing it, you’d better hope nothing goes wrong. […] It’s not just a philosophical reason why automakers haven’t allowed their vehicles to drive themselves. There’s a legal reason, too.”
However, Musk and Tesla have never been one to shy away from taking risk (or going toe to toe with regulators, for that matter). It’s possible that Tesla shares the view of Google self-driving car head Chris Urmson, who in January said that he believed that autonomous cars are legal to use in the US by default, and “there is no regulatory block”.
If nothing else, Tesla’s planned update will serve as a valuable experiment in the legal status of robot vehicles.
A Grand Experiment
Tesla’s self driving research is still in the early stages, but the update is a step in the right direction. Its limitations are sensible, and don’t seem to create unsafe situations in which a distracted driver has to suddenly take control of the vehicle.
It’s also deeply sci-fi (summoning an empty car from your phone is absurdly cool), and a great way to give users a taste of what autonomous vehicles will be like in the near future. It may even serve to help soften public opinion on the idea, and give Tesla a chance to show how safe and boring two-ton autonomous robots can be.
That, at least, is well worth everyone’s time.
Own a Tesla? Want a Tesla? Looking forward to the update? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Image Credit: Model S Via Tesla Motors