Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) autonomous car project has long garnered the attention of tech junkies, automotive observers, and critics alike. The notion of a self-driving car, while not a new one, was always kept at a safe distance from the consumer market. As much as some people would gladly relinquish the chore of driving, the technology that would allow that to happen always felt too much like science fiction, and that a consumer grade system was still decades away.
Then a company like Google comes along. A company that not only has the vast resources at hand to execute such a project, but has the means necessary to develop and carry out a system within a matter of years. But even Google may need to hurry up, because another company is looking to beat it at its own game — and not surprisingly, that company would be Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA). According to CEO Elon Musk, Tesla plans to have an operational, near-total autonomous car on the roads in three years.
Google’s own program began three years ago, and although it has mounted some very admirable efforts in that time, it was not able to find a partner to build the cars. Tesla already has that part figured out. ”We should be able to do 90 percent of miles driven within three years,” Musk said, although he would not reveal further details of Tesla’s project. However, he did note that it was “internal development” rather than technology being supplied by another company. “It’s not speculation,” he added.
Tesla’s autonomy ambitions were not leaked, nor really announced, initially. In fact, it was a job position posted by the company that alerted observers to the goings-on inside Tesla’s skunkworks. Elon Musk even took such strides as reaching out to the Twittersphere to look for potential applicants.
Engineers interested in working on autonomous driving, pls email firstname.lastname@example.org. Team will report directly to me.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 18, 2013
Tesla reportedly is looking for a radar hardware engineer who, “has 3-10 years of design and release responsibility on sensors (Radar, Cameras, Lidar, and Ultrasound)/active safety systems. This engineer will be responsible for translating Tesla’s autopilot roadmap into active safety features and into requirements. The engineer will actively drive the features into production and evaluate future technologies.”
But if you’re waiting on a car that will get you from A to B with virtually no effort, you might have to wait just a bit longer. ”My opinion is it’s a bridge too far to go to fully autonomous cars,” Musk said, in an interview with the Financial Times. “It’s incredibly hard to get the last few per cent.” One person, familiar with Google’s own autonomous car efforts, said that carmakers had been hesitant about adopting the Google technology because of the potential liabilities from accidents involving robot cars, The Financial Times reported, though Google would not comment on the matter.
Now, the big question lies in where this technology — once a consumer-grade application of it is hashed out — is applied in the real world. There will be no small amount of legislative shuffling that must occur to initiate the oversight of such systems, and the insurance companies will too have to adjust in a big way as a near-fully automatic car could potentially redefine the terms of liability in a spectrum of varying circumstances.
For Tesla, the autonomous program may not play as huge a role as a key selling feature for its own vehicles, but rather a valuable addition to the company’s already burgeoning patent portfolio. Others, like Mercedes-Benz, have already launched several systems that execute crucial functions needed in an autonomous car, such as adaptive cruise control, lane recognition, and so on. A comprehensive system could put Tesla in a strong position from an IP point of view.
In fact, Mercedes-Benz has already created its own auto-piloted vehicle, the S500 Intelligent Drive research vehicle, as Autoblog explains that, ”The sensors, radar, cameras, and maps services used to make it autonomous are production-based, mainly used for active and passive safety features and adaptive cruise control. In the autonomous research vehicle’s case, there are more of them and they’re more strategically placed around the car for comprehensive coverage of its surroundings. All of the systems would be for naught if it weren’t for the complex algorithm developed to read their feedback and drive the car.”
Of course, from the consumer standpoint, is the market ready to support a self-driving car? Are people ready to relinquish control — even just 90 percent of it — to a series of chips and processors embedded within a vehicle?
While the system itself could very well be up and running in the next three years as Musk claims, it might be the environment — both public and legal — that ends up holding back plans for a self-controlling automobile.