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Tesla, Google and the Road to Autonomy
Stefan Morrone   Nov 1, 2015   Ethical Technology  

The automobile industry is still looking to develop the first fully autonomous vehicle, but Tesla Motors recently took the industry one step closer. The US car company has managed to simultaneously make one of the biggest advancements in the history of recent automobile technology and generate massive controversy at the same time.

The company recently released its new autopilot software via air distribution. According to the company’s website, the new software package “represents the only fully integrated autopilot system involving four different feedback modules: camera, radar, ultrasonics, and GPS.” These four systems work together to provide data feedback from Tesla in real-time, allowing it to be continuously expanded and improved upon. The software also added a number of new features to the vehicle. It enables the car to steer within a lane, change lanes by tapping a turn signal and manage speed through traffic-aware cruise control. It also gives drivers digital control over the vehicle’s motor and brakes. Tesla vehicles will now also be able to scan for a parking space, alert the driver when one is available, and parallel park on command.

However, the software is not without its faults.  The biggest issue being raised is its misuse on the road, leading to potentially fatal accidents. The software obviously isn’t perfect, and people have been taking advantage of it. Since the software’s release, there have been numerous incidents of consumers misusing the new feature, and treating their vehicle as an autonomous machine. While no major accidents have occurred yet, the potential is there, and it remains to be seen how the technology will be handled by Tesla.  Since its release, countless videos have been appearing online depicting owners removing their hands from the steering wheel to demonstrate the new feature.

The software does have features that attempt to curb its misuse, but they don’t seem very effective. After a short time with no steering wheel grip, the car will sound an alert that the driver needs to “take control immediately” or it will pull itself over and stop the engine, but this warning is easily circumvented by simply grabbing the wheel for a few seconds. With the system active, the vehicle can travel for miles with essentially no input from the driver. 

Tesla’s press release states that the autopilot software makes driving easier by relieving drivers of the most tedious and potentially dangerous aspects of travelling. Their goal with the autopilot function was to instil more confidence in drivers, increase safety and make driving more enjoyable. While the vehicle can perform functions on its own, Tesla has urged drivers always to keep their hands on the wheel, but they do acknowledge that many people won't be able to resist the temptation of trying to allow their vehicle to drive itself. Tesla says the software does not relieve a driver of responsibility when on the road and is not an excuse for negligence.

A big part of the problem may lie in the integrated marketing campaign Tesla has used for their new product.  They continue to market the software as “autopilot technology” instead of what it actually is: an assistive driving aid. This promotes the idea that it is safe to drive the vehicle hands-free, when it obviously is not.  Regardless of how it was marketed, there would always be people who misuse it, but perhaps Tesla should have taken better care to educate customers and stress the dangers of the improper use of this technology.  There is always the chance that the software will be improved via future updates, but, again, it remains to be seen how it is handled and how it functions on the open road. The misuse of this technology could have an enormous impact on Tesla's public image.

This is in stark contrast to the other big advancement in the field of autonomous vehicles: Google’s self-driving car. Unlike Tesla’s project, this one is truly hands-free. Google has created an electric, on-demand vehicle designed to navigate safely through busy city streets. Each car has sensors designed to detect objects as far as two football fields away in all directions, including animals, pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles. The software processes all the information to help the car safely navigate the road. Also, Google wants the technology to go mobile- people would be able to order a driverless ride, running on electricity anywhere, anytime, and in all but the most remote areas.

The two are similar in some respects, but their purposes are fundamentally different. Google is aiming to create a vehicle that doesn’t rely on or doesn't need a driver.  This drastically changes the future of the auto industry.  By providing people with the ability to call for a driverless ride anytime, as discussed above, Google’s creation revolutionizes the transportation industry.  There is the potential for a drop in automobile sales; why buy a personal car when you can take one on demand? It would also help aid the public transportation system.

On the other hand, Tesla has created a car that helps a driver drive. It doesn't drive itself to a destination, but it does help you get there easier and safer. Tesla's technology also isn't a radical change; many modern cars also incorporate similar features such as self-parking, distance keeping, etc.  Tesla's software is more of an expansion of previously-established features.

 Ultimately, however, both are great ideas that are helping to change radically the automobile industry for the better. The future of self-driving vehicles is very bright, and science is not all that far from finally being able to create a safe and viable method of transportation that does not rely on the external operation or prone to human error.






Stefan Morrone is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada. He is a graduate of the Ryerson School of Journalism and enjoys writing about a variety of topics.

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