I had the opportunity to experience Tesla's self-driving auto pilot mode in their new Model X SUV. It's very cool and the car really does drive itself.
While in auto pilot mode the human driver doesn't need to have their hands on the steering wheel or touch the pedals.
Sensors circling the Tesla coupled with front-facing radar and a camera mounted by the rearview mirror continuously scan the road. This allows the car's computer to automatically follow traffic, stay in its lane and even change lanes.
The auto-pilot is impressive, but it's is not close to perfect.
Even on a short drive there were several cases where it emitted a warning beep requesting help from the human driver. The main areas where the system seems to fail are places where lanes are not well marked or shift in a major way.
For example, the system was clearly confused by a tunnel where the pavement and line markers changed that also required a merge. It also asked for help while crossing a bridge.
So the human driver still needs to be alert and ready to take over. But all in all it's very effective and no doubt makes driving more relaxing.
The systems shortcomings point out a major problem for self-driving cars. Driving is very complex and developing a self-driving car that knows how to handle every possible driving situation is an enormous challenge.
Researchers at MIT think one way to solve this is to develop underground roadways for autonomous delivery vehicles.
The Wall Street Journal's Are Self-Driving Delivery Vehicles Headed Underground? covers this effort. Key quote:
For deliveries, subterranean drones have a number of advantages over unmanned aerial vehicles, said Sertac Karaman, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics and one of the developers of the robotic trike. For one, a lot of urban infrastructure–from sewers and subways to conduits for telephone, data and electrical cables–already resides underground. And then there’s the safety issue: “It only takes a kid with a rock to take down a drone ..."
The other huge advantage is an underground system would be controlled environment. This would make it much easier to create the systems needed to make the delivery vehicles autonomous.
Autonomous cars are going to happen in the future and Tesla's autopilot provides a glimpse at what it will look like and highlights how good the technology has become.
But in our opinion mainstream use of fully self-driving vehicles is still many years away.
Part of this is due to cost and infrastructure. It will simply take a lot time to replace our existing fleet of traditional cars, especially given the self-driving versions will initially be much more expensive.
Also hindering the growth of self-driving cars will be regulatory and insurance issues.
We expect to see Tesla like autopilots become common in new cars over the next few years. We also expect to see fully autonomous vehicles more widely used in controlled settings.
But despite all the press reports claiming self-driving cars are just a few years away, don't expect your Uber to be driverless anytime soon.