Tesla brought a much-anticipated new feature for its cars online last week: Autopilot, a suite of “driver-assist” technologies that, under the right circumstances, can enable a Model S sedan to drive itself in a hands-off-the-wheel way for extended periods.
We knew this technology was coming with the Version 7.0 upgrade to Tesla’s vehicle software. But when we tried Autopilot, it was giddily mind-blowing.
Variations on this type of amped-up cruise control have been offered, or are going to be offered, by numerous carmakers. But there’s just something about a Tesla — a Tesla! — that can handle itself on the highway.
Naturally, the arrival of Autopilot has stoked a discussion about how long it will be before the fully autonomous car of the future hits the road. In the auto industry, a car that can completely navigate itself from point A to point B with essentially no driver input is known as having “Level 4” autonomy (Level 4 cars are those that can drive with no one in them). Tesla’s Autopilot should be classified as Level 2 autonomy, although in practice it definitely point to a Level 3 world, in which drivers will be able to sit back and leave dealing with traffic to their vehicles.
But here’s the thing: Elon Musk might not want Teslas to be fully autonomous. And in fact, the way that Tesla has put its cars together suggests that they may never be Level 4 vehicles.
Google versus Tesla
Contrast this vision with what Google is working on with its Google Car. This project started with the goal of Level 4 autonomy and has been reverse-engineering a mobility experience from an as-yet-to-arrive future. The Google Car, which is undergoing road testing, wants to be four wheels, some seats, and a whole bunch of radars, cameras, and sensors. No steering wheel even required to take your hands off of. Much less an accelerator or brake pedal.
Extrapolate from what we’ve already seen of the Google Car — cute little podmobiles humming around the Bay Area — and you can get a very clear picture of how the way we get around will be completely transformed. No more cars in the driveway. Far fewer highway fatalities. Mobility on demand and mostly shared, managed and facilitated by the Uber-like entities of tomorrow.
But of course, far fewer high-performance sports cars, given that the freeways of the future won’t tolerate them.
Musk doesn’t sound like a shared-mobility booster, given comments he’s made on Tesla earnings calls and in interviews. He also doesn’t seem to be a fan of getting rid of steering wheels.
“Autonomous with optional manual is the way to go,” he said on a call with journalists last week when Autopilot was announced.
His ambivalence about shared mobility also makes sense, given that Tesla’s business is built on the idea that people want to individually buy luxurious electric cars that can cost upwards of $US130,000. However, he also falls more or less into the “convenience” camp, a contingent of analysts who think most people don’t mind having a car that sits idle much of the time if it can be ready for them immediately when the need arises.
Splitting the difference
But beyond that, it’s obvious Elon Musk likes to drive.
- He once owned a McLaren F1 hypercar, one of the most exotic high-performance machines money can, or could, buy (examples now sell for millions at auction).
- The first Tesla wasn’t a glorified golf cart, a rolling advertisement for the virtues of electrification; it was a sexy two-seater than could do zero to 60 in less than 4 scorching seconds.
- That need for speed has continued to be wound into Tesla’s DNA. Musk & Co. can’t make a slow car. The top-of-the-line Model S P90D serves up zero to 60 in a Tesla-claimed 2.8 seconds. The newly launched Model X will probably be among the fastest, if not the fastest, SUVs on the planet, once it’s officially tested by some reliable sources.
- Musk is a commuter. He road-tested Autopilot himself on drives from his home in Bel Air on Los Angeles’ Westside down to Space X HQ in Hawthorne, not far from LAX.
For over a hundred years driving has been fun for many people. But in the past few decades, as the revolution in information technology has made connected life a 24/7 experience, the automobile’s classic role as an icon of freedom has been constrained by its evolution into a hellish wheeled conveyance that’s often trapped in gridlock.
What was fun has become hell. Musk’s solution: Escape from hell without renouncing fun in the process. And that’s what Autopilot is: The best of the old world, but an enabler for the new.
Need for speed
Electric cars are, by design, quick. An electric motor has maximum torque at 1 RPM (internal-combustion engines must develop torque as their engines gain speed), which means that even a Honda Fit EV has alarmingly acceleration. In a Tesla Model S P90D in Ludicrous Mode, this becomes mind-bending: The car can do a passable imitation of an F-18 being fired from a catapult off an aircraft carrier’s deck.
Musk and Tesla have always touted this performance characteristic with Tesla’s cars. Some electric cars are philosophically boring. Tesla’s cars are constitutionally incapable of inducing boredom.
It’s unlikely Tesla will reverse course if a shift toward higher levels of autonomy takes place. Even the forthcoming Model 3 mass-market vehicle is expected to be as snazzy as midsize BMW or Audi. In Musk’s ideal world, cars can drive themselves and park themselves, and probably know when they’re overdue for a trip to the car wash.
“In three years we will have a car that can do full autonomous,” he said last week. “It will be able to take you from your driveway to work safely.”
But that fully autonomous car won’t sacrifice traditional driving controls. You still be able to go manual, grab the wheel and steer, and get those uniquely human thrills that come from melding flesh and bone with horsepower and handling.
Autopilot can manage a Model S at up to 92 mph. Musk doesn’t want his computers to be ignorant of velocity (and of course he has an eye on German roadways where no one can drive 55).
Elon the humanist
Apart from being perhaps the most visionary businessperson since Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, Musk has also shown a deep and abiding interest in being a member of the human race. His companies — Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity — collectively aim for a destiny in which humans are saved from climate change, can escape Earth for Mars if Armageddon occurs, and rid themselves of a dependence on fossil fuels.
SpaceX, for example, isn’t planning to send a robot to Mars. The Dragon space capsule looks to be the Tesla P90D of the cosmos. The astronauts who ride it to the International Space Station and beyond are in for a sexy journey.
But Musk isn’t naive. He understands a paradigm shift is a paradigm shift. If Google can commercialize a car that decisively ends the Way We Have Always Driven, then Musk wants Tesla to be prepared for that. However, he refuses to concede that human driving will soon become an anachronism.
He might say that “long term, it will be safer than a person driving” to have Autopilot engaged. But he also doesn’t want driving as we have always done it to become a niche craft, like horsemanship. Further, he doesn’t want Tesla to lose out on whatever performance-oriented enthusiast cars exist in 20 or 30 or 50 years. Tesla has lately been challenging Ferrari and Lamborghini for a reason: because Tesla can.
Ultimately, this could hold Tesla back. Although Musk may have just allowed us to take our hands off the wheel in his cars, he doesn’t want us to take them off forever.