Tesla separates new fully automated Level 5 system from semi-autonomous Autopilot Level 2 features

tesla-video-on-fully-automated-systemTake a look at Tesla’s new video, released hours after the Wednesday evening media conference call announcing its full self-driving hardware. It starts with a statement separating the new system from semi-autonomous Autopilot features: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”

A passenger sits in the driver’s seat of a Tesla Model X and places his hands under the steering wheel just as the Rolling Stone’s 1966 song, “Paint It Black,” provides background music. That song refers to black and white screen images laced into the video that shows viewers the new full self-driving capabilities that Tesla CEO Elon Musk explained Wednesday evening during the conference call. “Right rearward vehicle camera” is the first feature displayed in black and white during the video. After taking a spin around on city streets and a freeway, the all-electric SUV comes back to Tesla’s office. The passenger gets out of the Model X in the parking lot, which then moves forward without a human driver, and stops to let a pedestrian safely cross the lot. The Model X parks itself against a curb as the song comes to an end.

Tesla has said that Autopilot is at Level 2 on the autonomous vehicle scale, with a combination of two technologies designed to make driving easier. The new system will be what some organizations, include the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) would define as Level 5, which does not have any option for human driving – no steering wheel or controls. Automakers and suppliers are running the gamut over which level they’re supporting in the next few years. Tesla seems to be joining in with Google and Ford in supporting Level 5 fully autonomous vehicles, with Tesla having the potential to bring it first to market.

Tesla shares the viewpoint of Google, and other self-driving car advocates, on the necessity of bringing fully automated vehicles to roads to save lives. During the media Q&A on Wednesday night, Musk addressed the issue, referring to the fatal crashes in Florida and China this year tied to the Autopilot system:

“One of the things I should mention that frankly has been quite disturbing to me is the degree of media coverage of Autopilot crashes, which are basically almost none relative to the paucity of media coverage of the 1.2 million people that die every year in manual crashes. [It is] something that I think does not reflect well upon the media. It really doesn’t. Because, and really you need to think carefully about this, because if, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people.”

The fully autonomous system will need to gain government approval before it’s allowed to be activated and used by Tesla owners. Tesla said that high-end Model S and Model X vehicles equipped with hardware for full autonomy are already in production, and the upcoming Model 3 will have it as well. Previously built vehicles without the new hardware won’t have the fully autonomous features.

During that conference call, Musk said his goal is to demonstrate a vehicle traveling in fully autonomous mode from Los Angeles to New York by the end of 2017. Autonomous features will be introduced gradually over a period of time, and will be based on what Musk called “Hardware 2.”

The software for reaching the fully self-driving mode will need to be validated, and the new system still need to be approved by regulators. Tesla expects to reach those milestones in time, which Musk said would be much safer than cars currently on roads driven by humans.

“It will take us some time into the future to complete validation of the software and to get the required regulatory approval, but the important thing is that the foundation is laid for the cars to be fully autonomous at a safety level we believe to be at least twice that of a person, maybe better,” Musk said Wednesday.

The Tesla blog article, posted Wednesday, describes the new fully automated system. It will provide eight surround cameras with 360 degrees of visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range, compared to one camera in previous Tesla vehicles. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors improve the range, allowing for detection at nearly twice the distance of the prior system. A forward-facing radar with enhanced processing provides additional data through whatever weather and lighting conditions the vehicle is traveling through.

The question of whether Tesla will follow a similar path as is being tested by Uber, General Motors and Lyft, and Ford’s strategy to integrate autonomous systems to ride-hailing services, was clarified on Thursday. Yes, Tesla will be entering that space, and it will be called Tesla Network.

Tesla posted a disclaimer to its website on Thursday providing more information to a comment Musk made Wednesday. He said Tesla is building new vehicles with the necessary hardware to eventually enable full autonomy.

“Please note that using a self-driving Tesla for car-sharing and ride-hailing for friends and family is fine, but doing so for revenue purposes will only be permissible on the Tesla Network, details of which will be released next year,” read the Tesla website disclaimer.

The concept was originally announced by Musk in his July blog post, “Master Plan, Part Deux.” The Tesla CEO outlined a system in which a Tesla owner could add a car to a shared Tesla fleet using a mobile device app, allowing it to “generate income for you” and lower the cost of ownership. Musk said that in cities where car ownership is lower, Tesla would operate its own fleet.

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