Tesla will improve its highway autosteer capabilities and automated parallel parking features shortly. Equally as important is how the car is enhanced: not with a visit to the dealership or with new hardware components, but with over-the-air software updates. That’s increasingly important when a quick update is needed, such as the next time a car gets hacked.
“Almost ready to release highway autosteer and parallel autopark software update,” the Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote in a Tweet. He followed with tweets noting challenging situations and that the car will learn over time.
Tesla advances the state of sort-of autonomous driving
What Tesla is updating is its Highway Autosteer feature. Using sensors already on the Tesla Model S, Highway Autosteer paces the car in front using adaptive cruise control, stays in lane using lane departure warning / lane keep assist, and tracks cars coming up in adjacent lanes with blind spot detection. At the least, the car minds its own business, doesn’t get in the way of other cars, and slows down if another car gets in its way. It works best on limited access highways with clear lane markings that aren’t obscured from lack of maintenance, heavy rain or snow, or snow on the pavement.
This is something other cars do as well. It’s not clear how much a Tesla differs from a Mercedes-Benz from a BMW based on the quality of its hardware (all sourced from a finite number of third parties) and software (typically co-developed then tweaked by the automaker) versus the automaker’s skill in describing the capabilities.
The parallel autopark helps the driver maneuver into and out of a tight parking spot. The car finds a suitable space and then steers, while the driver applies reverse gear, throttle, and brakes. Some cars do head-in perpendicular parking as well, and parking with the driver out of the car is coming.
Tesla describes the challenges
In follow-on Tweets, Musk described some issues Tesla faces. “Final corner case is dealing with low contrast lane markings (faded white on grey concrete) while driving into the sun at dusk,” he Tweeted. Musk further Tweeted, “The car will learn over time, but there is a min caliber of starting quality.”
Radar and sonar used in adaptive cruise control and blind spot detection obviously isn’t bothered by lack of light. The windshield camera used for lane departure warning is. Headlamps are an adequate light source at night. But the nation’s near-contempt for quality infrastructure includes delayed maintenance of lane markings. Not only does it hamper the quality of driver assist technology, but it degrades the abilities of older drivers with older eyes.
Optical devices are also affected by being driven into the sun at dawn and dusk, by oncoming headlamps, and dirt on the windshield. Subaru for several years and now BMW on its new 7 Series use dual front-facing cameras to reduce, but not eliminate, problems from low light, glare, and crappy lane markers. Next-generation GPS isn’t to the point where cars can position themselves in the middle of the lane via satellite fixes. If you zoom the navigation map all the way, you appear to be centered in the lane, but that’s really the nav software snapping your approximate position to the roadway.
One probem Musk didn’t address — technical depth takes a hit when you speak in 140-character blips — is the difficulty of dealing with cars that change lanes and cut suddenly in front of you. Anyone who has a car with forward collision warning or ACC sees that a couple times a day on a long highway trip. Side-facing radar or sonar that effectively changes blind spot detection to rear-and-side detection will help.
The magic of over the air updates
Tesla has a big advantage over most carmakers with integrated telematics. If there’s a desirable update or a necessary update, it can happen automatically. It doesn’t require a dealer visit, or the owner downloading a patch to a USB key and installing that. General Motors has near-universal telematics (OnStar), but the average Tesla owner is more tech-savvy and more understanding of the process.
At the very least, when Tesla releases Version 7 of its software, the car will do an even better job of taking some of the pressure off the driver and forgives his or her miscues, such as drifting too close to the car in front, or veering over a lane marking. Everybody thinks they’re a good driver. At the very least, attention drifts late in a long day of driving, or on monotonous daily commutes.