Tesla’s driver­less ad­van­tage over Google, Uber and GM is 1.3 bil­lion miles of data

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Dana Hill

There was, in hind­sight, a clear el­e­ment of risk to Tesla Mo­tors’s de­ci­sion to in­stall Au­topi­lot hard­ware in every car com­ing off the pro­duc­tion line since Oc­to­ber 2014. It paid a price, with fed­eral reg­u­la­tors prob­ing the deadly crash of a Model S while in driver-as­sist mode and crit­ics slam­ming Tesla for rolling the tech­nol­ogy out too soon.

But there was also a re­ward. The com­pany has col­lected more than 1.3 bil­lion miles of data from Au­topi­lot-equipped ve­hi­cles op­er­at­ing un­der di­verse road and weather con­di­tions around the world. And in the fran­tic race to roll out the first fully func­tional au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle, that kind of mass, real-world in­tel­li­gence can be in­valu­able. In that way, for now, the elec­tric-car maker has a leg up on com­peti­tors in­clud­ing Google, Gen­eral Mo­tors Co. and Uber Tech­nolo­gies Inc.

“There’s no ques­tion that Tesla has an ad­van­tage,” said Nindhi Kalra, a se­nior in­for­ma­tion sci­en­tist at the Rand Cor­po­ra­tion. “They can learn from a wider range of ex­pe­ri­ences and at a much faster rate than a com­pany that is test­ing with trained driv­ers and em­ploy­ees be­hind the wheel.”


The big promise of au­ton­o­mous mo­tor­ing is that it’ll save lives, and a Rand re­port in April that Kalra coau­thored warned that cars “would have to be driven hun­dreds of mil­lions of miles and some­times hun­dreds of bil­lions of miles to demon­strate their safety.” Data is king; the more you have, the faster the al­go­rithms will learn.

Of course, not all miles are cre­ated equal: there are semi-au­ton­o­mous as well as fully self-driv­ing ones, re­al­world vs. sim­u­lated, high­way vs. those racked up in tricky ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments. Still, Tesla is “in a very unique po­si­tion to push the state of the art of al­go­rith­mic driv­ing and ma­chine learn­ing in per­sonal trans­port,” said Adam Jonas, the lead an­a­lyst at Mor­gan Stan­ley for au­tos and shared mo­bil­ity, in a re­cent note to clients.

Uber hits road­block

The au­ton­o­mous au­tos Google de­vel­oped have cov­ered 2 mil­lion re­al­world miles — with em­ploy­ees on board — since 2009, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany. Par­ent Al­pha­bet Inc. last week spun the self­driv­ing project into a busi­ness called Waymo.

Uber, which has been pi­lot­ing self-driv­ing rideshare ve­hi­cles in Pitts­burgh, re­cently de­ployed a fleet in San Fran­cisco in its part­ner­ship with Volvo Cars. Each SUV is staffed with two em­ploy­ees, one ready to grab the wheel and the other on the look­out for pedes­tri­ans.

Uber pulled its cars from Cal­i­for­nia roads on Wed­nes­day af­ter state reg­u­la­tors moved to re­voke their regis­tra­tions. The cars need the same spe­cial per­mit as the 20 other com­pa­nies test­ing self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy in Cal­i­for­nia, reg­u­la­tors ar­gued.

As for GM, it’ll be putting its flotilla on the streets in Michi­gan, now that Gov. Rick Sny­der has signed a law al­low­ing public-road test­ing of cars with­out steer­ing wheels, gas or brake ped­als — or any need for hu­man con­trol. But GM en­gi­neers will be in the front seats, as they are in test trips that have been tak­ing place in Ari­zona and Cal­i­for­nia. Ford Mo­tor Co. has been do­ing its con­trolled runs on Michi­gan roads since 2015, in­clud­ing when it’s snow­ing.

When Au­topi­lot is turned on, a Tesla car is able to do things like change lanes and par­al­lel-park it­self. Tesla stresses to own­ers that they’re in charge — and must al­ways have hands on the wheel — but the com­pany is ef­fec­tively try­ing out evolv­ing tech­nol­ogy with peo­ple who may not fully com­pre­hend they’re ex- pected to main­tain con­trol or who may ig­nore Tesla’s in­struc­tions.

The fa­tal ac­ci­dent oc­curred in May when a man drove his 2015 Model S un­der the trailer of an 18wheeler on a Florida high­way.

Nei­ther the driver nor Au­topi­lot no­ticed the white side of the trac­tor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake wasn’t ap­plied, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany. The Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion is in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

The 1.3 bil­lion miles of data Tesla said it has col­lected rep­re­sents those cov­ered by its ve­hi­cles even when Au­topi­lot isn’t switched on — it op­er­ates in “shadow mode,” with sen­sors track­ing real-world data when it’s off. In May, a Tesla ex­ec­u­tive said at a Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy con­fer­ence that the cars had driven 100 mil­lion miles with Au­topi­lot ac­tively en­gaged. In Oc­to­ber, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on Twit­ter that the num­ber of cu­mu­la­tive Au­topi­lot-on miles was 222 mil­lion.

Tesla speaks out

“Whether they are ahead or not, Tesla cer­tainly has tons of data,” said Richard Wal­lace, di­rec­tor of trans­porta­tion sys­tems anal­y­sis at the Cen­ter for Au­to­mo­tive Re­search in Ann Ar­bor, Mich. “They will be able to an­a­lyze that six ways from Sun­day and con­tinue to tweak their al­go­rithms.”

Musk said in Oc­to­ber that the up­com­ing Model 3, due out in late 2017, as well as all Tes­las now be­ing made at the com­pany’s Fre­mont, Calif., fac­tory, will ship with an im­proved hard­ware suite that will en­able to­tal self­driv­ing. While he’s said he wants to demon­strate an au­ton­o­mous cross-coun­try drive within a year, other au­tomak­ers have gen­er­ally ruled out to­tal self-driv­ing ca­pa­bil­ity un­til some­time af­ter 2020.

“Most car com­pa­nies and tech com­pa­nies don’t want to give away how far along they are. Elon, of course, is the ex­cep­tion — he’s al­ways out there claim­ing how far ahead of ev­ery­one else he is,” said Karl Brauer, ex­ec­u­tive pub­lisher for Kel­ley Blue Book. As com­pa­nies boost their in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing, “the level of data that will be gen­er­ated is on a scale that is hard for us to con­ceive. This is the tip of the ice­berg.”‘

“Most car com­pa­nies and tech com­pa­nies don’t want to give away how far along they are. Elon, of course, is the ex­cep­tion — he’s al­ways out there claim­ing how far ahead of ev­ery­one else he is.” Karl Brauer of Kel­ley Blue Book

An Uber driver­less car waits in traf­fic dur­ing a test drive in San Fran­cisco. The ride-shar­ing com­pany pulled the cars off roads Wed­nes­day. Cal­i­for­nia de­manded it get a spe­cial per­mit be­fore us­ing public roads. Eric Ris­berg, The As­so­ci­ated Press

A self-driv­ing Uber car drives across the Ninth Street bridge in down­town Pitts­burgh. Gene J. Puskar, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Mar­cio Jose Sanchez, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Mo­tors Inc., in­tro­duces the Model X car at the com­pany's head­quar­ters in Fre­mont, Calif., in Septem­ber 2015.

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