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Watch This Tesla Drive Itself
Image: John Bates

Just as you should avoid the hospital in July (when new-fledged M.D.s begin to really learn their craft), so now may be a good time to give wide berth to any Tesla Model S you may see. Today, Tesla Motors finally uploaded its Autopilot software to owners, and many of them are experimenting with it on the road: "Look, Ma! No hands!"

Plenty of videos are up, mostly from enthusiasts. Here’s a cute one from John Bates, who lists himself on Twitter as a tech executive and a Tesla owner:

As the company said it would do a few months ago, it has put in several constraints to protect the people in the car from overconfidence. The car changes lanes only after Bates hits the turn indicator, and it requires him to put his hands on the wheel every 10 seconds. That last trick was introduced in the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S Class, the first commercial car that could say (if it could talk) that it drove itself. 

Other constraints are less obvious because the day is warm and sunny. Tesla’s Autopilot won’t engage at all unless it can perceive lane markings, something it often would not be able to do under snowy conditions. And it may not be able to judge, ahead of time, whether an object by the side of the road is a fire hydrant or a little boy who might be about to dart into traffic. 

It’s a technical tour de force, but it’s also a beta test. We should find out whether it passed that test in a few months.

The Conversation (0)

Self-Driving Cars Work Better With Smart Roads

Intelligent infrastructure makes autonomous driving safer and less expensive

9 min read
A photograph shows a single car headed toward the viewer on the rightmost lane of a three-lane road that is bounded by grassy parkways, one side of which is planted with trees. In the foreground a black vertical pole is topped by a crossbeam bearing various instruments. 

This test unit, in a suburb of Shanghai, detects and tracks traffic merging from a side road onto a major road, using a camera, a lidar, a radar, a communication unit, and a computer.

Shaoshan Liu

Enormous efforts have been made in the past two decades to create a car that can use sensors and artificial intelligence to model its environment and plot a safe driving path. Yet even today the technology works well only in areas like campuses, which have limited roads to map and minimal traffic to master. It still can’t manage busy, unfamiliar, or unpredictable roads. For now, at least, there is only so much sensory power and intelligence that can go into a car.

To solve this problem, we must turn it around: We must put more of the smarts into the infrastructure—we must make the road smart.

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