Tesla Jumps Onto Self-Driving On-Ramp with Autopilot

Watch Tesla's Model S autonomously navigate the traffic-ridden streets of New York City.

Thanks to its new Autopilot system, Tesla’s Model S and Model X can automatically steer, switch lanes, parallel park, and keep you from crashing.

Jalopnik tested the Autonomous Level 2 system in a Model S in New York City traffic, and based on the video above, the technology looks nearly flawless. As Jalopnik notes, it’s not a 100% self-driving system, calling it the “holy grail of cruise control.” Autopilot won’t drive you to your destination, won’t make navigational turns without your input, and it can’t comprehend traffic lights or signs.

Tesla’s Autopilot uses a forward-looking radar, a front-facing camera, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and GPS to visualize the road ahead. Tesla’s approach, unlike Google, is to gradually introduce features that automate certain driving tasks.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk warns there are limitations to the software, but that they should improve over time. “If there’s heavy snow it’s going to be harder for the system to work, so we’d advise caution.”

Musk adds, “It should not hit pedestrians, hopefully. It should handle them well.” Musk says the driver will be responsible if there’s an accident.

While it’s certainly not a self-driving system, Autopilot is a step in the right direction for Tesla, which began developing this system about one year ago. Enabling Autopilot will cost Model S and Model X owners an extra $2,500 after installing the software update that went live in the US today. Regulatory approval is still pending in Europe and Asia.

Musk and company are certainly chasing Google in the race to be the first to commercialize a self-driving car. Musk now says he believes self-driving cars, while maybe not legal, will be technically possible by 2018.

“I’m quite confident within three years the car will be able to take you from point to point - from your driveway to work without you touching anything,” he said. “You could be asleep the whole time and do so completely safely.”

If you’re wondering what a Level 2 autonomous system is, here’s the breakdown of the NHTSA’s Automated Vehicle Policy (PDF):

Level 0 – No-Automation: The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls (brake, steering, throttle, and motive power) at all times, and is solely responsible for monitoring the roadway and for safe operation of all vehicle controls. Vehicles that have certain driver support/convenience systems but do not have control authority over steering, braking, or throttle would still be considered “level 0” vehicles. Examples include systems that provide only warnings (e.g., forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring) as well as systems providing automated secondary controls such as wipers, headlights, turn signals, hazard lights, etc. Although a vehicle with V2V warning technology alone would be at this level, that technology could significantly augment, and could be necessary to fully implement, many of the technologies described below, and is capable of providing warnings in several scenarios where sensors and cameras cannot (e.g., vehicles approaching each other at intersections).

Level 1 – Function-specific Automation: Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions; if multiple functions are automated, they operate independently from each other. The driver has overall control, and is solely responsible for safe operation, but can choose to cede limited authority over a primary control (as in adaptive cruise control), the vehicle can automatically assume limited authority over a primary control (as in electronic stability control), or the automated system can provide added control to aid the driver in certain normal driving or crash-imminent situations (e.g., dynamic brake support in emergencies). The vehicle may have multiple capabilities combining individual driver support and crash avoidance technologies, but does not replace driver vigilance and does not assume driving responsibility from the driver. The vehicle’s automated system may assist or augment the driver in operating one of the primary controls – either steering or braking/throttle controls (but not both). As a result, there is no combination of vehicle control systems working in unison that enables the driver to be disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND feet off the pedals at the same time. Examples of function-specific automation systems include: cruise control, automatic braking, and lane keeping.

Level 2 - Combined Function Automation: This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. Vehicles at this level of automation can utilize shared authority when the driver cedes active primary control in certain limited driving situations. The driver is still responsible for monitoring the roadway and safe operation and is expected to be available for control at all times and on short notice. The system can relinquish control with no advance warning and the driver must be ready to control the vehicle safely. An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering. The major distinction between level 1 and level 2 is that, at level 2 in the specific operating conditions for which the system is designed, an automated operating mode is enabled such that the driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time.

Level 3 - Limited Self-Driving Automation: Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. The vehicle is designed to ensure safe operation during the automated driving mode. An example would be an automated or self-driving car that can determine when the system is no longer able to support automation, such as from an oncoming construction area, and then signals to the driver to reengage in the driving task, providing the driver with an appropriate amount of transition time to safely regain manual control. The major distinction between level 2 and level 3 is that at level 3, the vehicle is designed so that the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway while driving.

Level 4 - Full Self-Driving Automation: The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver1 will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles. By design, safe operation rests solely on the automated vehicle system.

About the Author

Steve Crowe · Steve Crowe is managing editor of Robotics Trends. Steve has been writing about technology since 2008. He lives in Belchertown, MA with his wife and daughter.
Contact Steve Crowe: scrowe@ehpub.com  ·  View More by Steve Crowe.


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