Tesla (TSLA) has never sold a self-driving car. No automaker has. The technology isn’t ready for the public yet.
Yet Tesla offers an option on its Model S sedan called “Autopilot,” which apparently factored into a fatal accident on May 7 in central Florida, which the federal government is now investigating. It’s the first known incident in which self-driving automotive technology may have contributed to a fatality, and it comes as Tesla is facing financial strains and is attempting a controversial tie-up with Solar City (SCTY) that shareholders may squash.
But Tesla has gone much farther than any other automaker in promoting its self-driving technology, and branding it as a breakthrough – which it’s not, really. “Autopilot” is a term borrowed from the aviation industry, and it refers to planes that are flown almost entirely by computers except during takeoff, landing and unexpected events at altitude. Autonomous technology for cars is nowhere near as advanced as it is for airplanes, which Tesla itself acknowledges, in a fine-print kind of way.
The cameras, lasers, sonars and other sensors that gather the info allowing computers to make driving decisions still aren’t as good as ordinary human drivers are at reacting to the unexpected craziness that occurs on America’s roads. At a conference in Boston earlier this year, MIT engineering professor John Leonard showed video footage of several things self-driving technology still can’t master, such as a police officer waving traffic forward through a red light, which contradicts coding that says cars should stop at red lights.
At the same conference, Gil Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, said, “We don’t have any autonomous car yet where the car, on average, is better than a person.” Just about all the experts agree that while sensors and computers might be better at piloting a vehicle on a predictable route with no surprises – plus, computers don’t drink, do drugs or get emotional – technology still struggles to make good split-second decisions when something that’s not in the database occurs. Bright light, driving rain, snow and confusing construction detours still confound automotive sensors.
The traditional automakers are impressed with the fact that Tesla has brought compelling products to market against steep odds. But they’re also dismissive of Musk’s penchant for hype and his habit of claiming leadership on technologies that Big Auto has been developing for decades, and rolling out cautiously. A safety expert for Volvo, which probably focuses more on safety than any other automaker, told the Verge in April that Tesla’s Autopilot feature is “an unsupervised wannabe…. it gives you the impression it’s doing much more than it is.”
It's hard to believe, but we've been hammering away at the autonomous car story for over five years now, and in all that time, the pattern has remained remarkably consistent.
Ddulite journalists have, with very few exceptions, stuck close to a fundamentally flawed narrative that understates the serious problems with the technology, overstates the impediments of regulation, and fetishizes the role of visionary entrepreneurs.
This fetishizing has reached its zenith with Elon Musk. As I said earlier, the basic scenario described here with Tesla applies to virtually all of the man's enterprises. He has some good ideas, moves quickly, and tends to shake things up in a positive way, but the hype-to-substance ratio is astounding, the businesses invariably run on large checks from the government and still frequently manage to lose money, and the technological advances often owe most of their foundation to other companies.