driverless cars

The new Tesla D semi-driverless electric car and the one thing it isn’t

The new Tesla D is an electric car that you can drive in the conventional way but that also has some “autopilot” features.  It can, under certain circumstances, change lanes by itself, park itself, and adjust its speed by “reading” traffic signs.  Brad Plumer over at Vox is suggesting that this sort of hybrid of human-controlled and autopilot might be part of the progression we take towards fully driverless vehicles, but I wonder if that’s the case.

My feeling is that such a conclusion presumes that what is stopping the transition to driverless cars is technical development.  I’m more inclined to think that the real roadblock is the regulatory framework.

If I’m right about that, then the one thing the Tesla D isn’t is the next step on the way to driverless cars.  It is more likely to be an unnecessary detour.

The leader in the field of driverless cars is, of course, Google.  And you get the feeling that, since the development of their latest model — which has neither a steering wheel, rear mirrors, nor human override — they are getting pretty confident about its capabilities.


As commentator Bill Gross said in a recent article on LinkedIn: “I believe that this is an UNDER-hyped revolution in the making.”  He points out that “Google’s self-driving car gathers 750 megabytes of sensor data per second!”  And as the image above indicates:

It is capturing every single thing that it sees moving – cars, trucks, birds, rolling balls, dropped cigarette butts, and fusing all that together to make its decisions while driving. If it sees a cigarette butt, it knows a person might be creeping out from between cars. If it sees a rolling ball it knows a child might run out from a driveway.

Ok, so we all know that this stuff tends to attract hype.  So deep breath and all that, but even scaling it back a bit, you have to wonder how necessary — technologically speaking — a halfway option like the Tesla D is.

In the meantime, Google are not just powering ahead with the technology.  They are investing inordinate amounts in government lobbying:

As Oliver Burkeman noted in a recent article in The Guardian:

Since July, [25 Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC] has been home to Google’s expanding political lobbying activities: a staff of 110 now works there under Susan Molinari, a former Republican congresswoman for New York. Ten years ago – the year it went public – Google spent a mere $180,000 on lobbying; as of this August, according to the Wall Street Journal, it had spent $9.3m in 2014 alone…

Washington politicians are well accustomed to being treated to steak dinners by lobbyists (and receiving campaign contributions from those they represent: Google gave $1.1m to national US political candidates in the first half of this year). But Google’s lobbying reaches much further. If you are, say, an Illinois lawmaker pondering a bill to stop people wearing Glass while they’re driving, you may find Google lobbyists reaching out for discussion; if you’re in a position to influence legislation on driverless cars, you may find yourself being taken for a spin in one. There are Google policy teams in Brussels; in Berlin, site of many battles with the German government over privacy; and in many other cities, including London, where the team is headed by Sarah Hunter, a former senior adviser to Tony Blair.

Interestingly, business reports are already suggesting the Tesla D isn’t causing a lot of excitement amongst investors:

The “D” turned out to be, in essence, a souped-up version of the Model S, one that merely brings Tesla up to speed with other high-end competitors, said Karl Brauer, an analyst with Kelly Blue Book.

“The Tesla true believers love it, but it doesn’t really move [Tesla] ahead,” Brauer said. “Some of the features may be unique … but not game-changing.”

Eventually, it seems to me, this is all going to be decided by insurance companies and government regulators.  When Google, or whoever, can show that driverless car are actually safer than ones driven by humans — and there seems to be a case that we are very close to that moment — the insurance companies and the governments who pay for the healthcare that looks after the victims of road accidents are going to say, you know what?, no more drivers.

BTW: Here’s the promo video for the Tesla D


This piece at Think Progress takes a different approach:

Tesla unveiled an all-wheel drive version of its Model-S on Thursday. The new car is an improvement over the two-wheel-drive version in almost every way, with increased efficiency, range, acceleration, top speed, and a slew of futuristic auto-pilot features.

Until now, all-wheel-drive (AWD) vehicles were less efficient and slower than rear-wheel drives due to the added mass of a second motor. This is not the case for the new Model S’s dual motor system, which makes for a more efficient and powerful car than its two-wheel-drive predecessor. While many Tesla owners currently warm weather states, the ability to power all four wheels is likely to expand Tesla’s customer base to the snowy East and Midwest.

In other words, while it mightn’t necessarily be the transition vehicle to driverless cars, it is improving on the idea of electric cars in a way that is likely to make them more popular.

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