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Rise of the Autonomous Car: 3 years away…

By October 13, 2015January 21st, 2022Michael's Operatory

I didn’t care for the movie Hot Tub Time Machine 2. But there was one scene that definitely caught my attention – namely, when the characters are face to face with SMART cars that were actually smart (i.e. fully autonomous). This happens in the past (which looks like the future) after traveling through their Hot Tub Time Machine. These so called smart cars could drive all on their own, pick up/drop off passengers, assess the individuals in front of them (Terminator style), request permission to murder someone (presumably from the government) and accepted love and attention instead of money. To me, this was a huge play on what it meant to be a self-aware and fully autonomous vehicle.

Enter Tesla: Software Update 7.0

But now let’s think about our present time. This Thursday, October 15, Tesla Motors is rolling out (through an over-the-air update among its fleet of late 2014-present Model S and Model X vehicles) a software update that will allow drivers to drive on highways hands-free.   It’s called “Lane Keeping”. It’s part and parcel of a much broader set of updates that are altogether called “Auto Pilot” which Telsa has been working on for years. Basically, after Thursday, many Tesla drivers will be able to engage “Adaptive Cruise Control” (which uses sonar, radar, and cameras all over the car to follow the car ahead of it in light of what you’ve set the speed limit to) COUPLED WITH “Lane Keeping” to give you a hands-free and foot-free driving experience. If the car cannot determine what it’s supposed to do next (e.g. speed up, slow down, curve around the bend) due to poor visibility or some inability to compute the raw data, then it will ask you to take over temporarily. Once you do, and it can then take a proper reading of the road and vehicles around it, then “Lane Keeping” will re-engage. If you don’t, then the car will apparently slow down, put on its hazards and pull over to the curb (it probably thinks you’re sleeping). Finally, while you’re driving, you’ll be able to execute lane changes by simply turning the signal; the car will do the rest when it’s safe to do so.

In future software updates, Tesla says you’ll be able to ‘summons’ your car on private property (Batman Style!). So it will come out of the garage, fully heated/cooled to your liking, playing your favourite music, knowing your destination, and head down to where you need it to be before you enter. Amazing!

Now, when I heard about this, I thought: crazy awesome! But it’s almost scary to think that we’re almost on our way to autonomous driving. We’ve all heard of Google’s self-driving car. Apparently, they’re relatively safe.   And rumour has it that Apple is coming out with its own fully electric (and perhaps autonomous at some point) vehicle by 2017. And other manufacturers (e.g. Mercedes, Audi, etc.) have come out with some limited form of self-driving – but they’re not 100% electric, so why should we care?

Finally, Elon Musk (founder/principal of Tesla Motors, Space X, Solar City, and formerly PayPal) believes Tesla vehicles will have the technology in 3 years to be fully autonomous. Perhaps they’ll collect information from one another, be permanently synced to your life (think: Internet of Things), and allow you to use a computer/apps while it drives you to/from work. I’m looking forward to it, but also not: I might miss actually driving! I doubt self-driving cars know how to give passengers an exhilarating ride. But I’m hoping the number of accidents on the road is greatly diminished while our overall productivity (think: stuck in traffic for 3 hours a day doing nothing) is greatly increased if we’re able to do work while the car is self-driving.

Until then, we’ve got Tesla’s “Auto Pilot”. It’s one small step away from pushing pedals, one giant step for mankind.

UPDATE: I tested out Autopilot (beta) and it works! Look Ma: “No Hands or Feet!” Here’s a quick video of me driving to work (going 115 km/hour and then having the car do a lane change by simply signalling):

Note: I hate to say it, but I’m sure it won’t be long before someone does something stupid and ends up crashing their car due to not paying attention or using it inappropriately, etc.

Mind you: you should be keeping both hands on the wheel. Ontario laws look to be changing on January 1 to eventually allow autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles to operate (using cameras, radar, sonar, GPS, etc.). Drivers will likely need to carry extra insurance and apply for a permit to drive an autonomous car. And the driver must still be sitting in the driver’s seat and be able to take control. You can read this Ministry of Transportation press release for more information.

DMC