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Tesla Hands Self-Driving Technology to Select Customers

The beta testers are scheduled to begin uploading the latest version of the company's Autopilot

2 min read
Tesla Hands Self-Driving Technology to Select Customers
Photo: Marco Destefanis/Getty Images

Tomorrow, Tesla is to begin uploading the latest version of its Autopilot software to a select group of of its Model S electric cars. The owners of these vehicles will act as beta testers, putting their cars through wringers never imagined by the company’s pros. If all goes well, a wider roll out will come later in the year.

It’s like handing off DVD players to the first non-engineers ever to see them—guys who will not read the #$%^! manual and who will not use a ballpoint pen to set the digital clock so it won’t flash “12:00” forever and ever.

Tesla’s beta testers will indeed be drivers, not merely passengers, because Autopilot 7.0 represents only a small step up from the previous package of driver assistance systems. It will manage lane-keeping, mind the gap to the car in front and behind, and handle much of the braking and acceleration. But testers will still have to oversee all operations and register their alertness—if only for legal purposes—by hitting the turn signal indicator every so often. 

"We don't want to set the expectation that you can basically pay no attention to what the car is doing," Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO and CTO, said in a call to analysts last week to discuss second-quarter earnings. Musk also indicated that the system was particularly at home when tracking a lead vehicle.

“You basically have high confidence in steering, braking and acceleration, basically when you are in some kind of traffic situation where there is a car right in front of you,” he said. “I think it's pretty good in the absence of that, so if there's just lanes, it's pretty good. And it will get better over time as we refine the software.”

Musk said one thing the beta test was looking for was how drivers reacted to the new Autopilot and its interface. Of course, the auto press would also like to know the answer to that question, but it’s hard to get a beta tester to talk. Earlier this year one commenter on a Tesla users’ forum suggested that “beta testers with loose lips are quickly banished.”

IEEE Spectrum would love to talk to anyone who can provide solid evidence of being a beta tester of the latest Autopilot.

Musk seems to have a policy of branching out again and again so that he can make a business out of every part of every system his company designs. First he had electric cars, now he is taking orders for stationary electric storage facilities based on the cars’ batteries, and next up is mapping. He said Tesla had to do it because there’s no publicly available mapping service of sufficient resolution for self-driving cars. It’s the reasoning behind last week’s sale of Nokia’s mapping service to Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Yet another way Tesla could extend its reach was suggested in Musk’s response to an analyst who asked about Travis Kalanick, head of the Uber ride-hailing business, who had been quoted as saying that if Tesla’s cars achieved autonomy by 2020, Kalanick would want to buy all of them. The question was whether Musk might prefer instead to set up a ride-sharing business of his own.

“That’s an insightful question,” Musk said, and then went silent for a good  while. “I don’t think I should answer it.”

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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