Tesla Hides Autopilot Progress from the Public, Raising Further Questions

Tesla Model 3 on Autopilot 1 photo
Photo: YouTube screenshot
Ask anyone who is mildly interested in the automotive industry which company they think is the most advanced in the race toward autonomous driving, and chances are they'll point the finger toward Tesla.
Ask them what they base this evaluation on, and you might be met with a blank stare. "What do you mean? Everybody knows that," they'll probably reply. "After all, it can't be called 'Autopilot' for nothing." And that, kids, is the power of marketing.

The right answer would be "I haven't got the faintest idea," because most manufacturers are keeping their cards close to their chests. Tesla is doing the same, but unlike the rest of the companies, it's bragging about having cracked the necessary hardware for Level 5 autonomy and, more than that, having already installed it on all the cars it sold for the past year and a half or so.

This is where its approach differs from the rest of the parties involved in the pursuit of self-driving technology. And, to make matters worse, Tesla has also refused to field its autonomous driving test cars on California's public roads during 2017, despite being among the first to receive a permit in 2016.

Instead, it chose to use closed tracks and public roads outside California, but that begs the question "why?" Tesla's entire efforts are concentrated around the Golden State, with the Gigafactory near Reno, Nevada also situated reasonably close by. The EV infrastructure (Superchargers) is also at its best, so why add the costs of running the tests somewhere else?

Well, one answer would be the fact that under the Californian law, the carmaker would have to file an annual report of its activity, including the times the autonomous system had had to disengage. Considering the Autopilot is a big selling point for Tesla - and having a worse performance than rival companies such as Waymo or GM would make them look like fools - the company prefers to keep things secret until it's ready to place its full trust in the system.

In the meantime, though, Tesla owners are getting increasingly frustrated by the lack of updates for the new Autopilot suite that is still performing largely worse than the initial one developed with Mobileye. To make matters worse, the planned coast-to-coast self-driven trip that Musk said would happen by the end of 2017 has been postponed indefinitely, casting further doubt over the actual progress the company has made.

Here is Tesla's response to the DMV:

To Whom It May Concern:

On behalf of Tesla, Inc. (“Tesla” or the “Company”), and pursuant to California Code of Regulations, Title 13, Article 3.7, § 227.46, this submission reports, from November 30, 2016 to December 1, 2017 (the “Reporting Year 2017”), Tesla’s data related to the disengagement of autonomous mode in Tesla’s autonomous vehicles that participate in the Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program administered by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (the “DMV”).

Tesla conducts testing to develop autonomous vehicles via simulation, in laboratories, on test tracks, and on public roads in various locations around the world. Additionally, because Tesla is the only participant in the program that has a fleet of hundreds of thousands of customer-owned vehicles that test autonomous technology in “shadow-mode” during their normal operation (these are not autonomous vehicles nor have they been driven in autonomous mode as defined by California law), Tesla is able to use billions of miles of real-world driving data to develop its autonomous technology. In “shadow mode,” features run in the background without actuating vehicle controls in order to provide data on how the features would perform in real world and real time conditions. This data allows Tesla to safely compare self-driving features not only to our existing Autopilot advanced driver assistance system, but also to how drivers actually drive in a wide variety of road conditions and situations.

For Reporting Year 2017, Tesla did not test any vehicles on public roads in California in autonomous mode, as defined by California law. As such, the Company did not experience any autonomous mode disengagements as part of the Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program in California.

As described above, Tesla analyzes data from billions of miles of driving received from our customer fleet via over-the-air (“OTA”) transmissions. We supplement this with data collected from testing of our engineering fleet in non-autonomous mode, and from autonomous testing that is done in other settings, including on public roads in various other locations around the world. Through all of this data, we are able to develop our self-driving system more efficiently than only by accumulating data from a limited number of autonomous vehicles tested in limited locations.
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About the author: Vlad Mitrache
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"Boy meets car, boy loves car, boy gets journalism degree and starts job writing and editing at a car magazine" - 5/5. (Vlad Mitrache if he was a movie)
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