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Monday, October 02, 2023

Breakthrough For Autonomous Vehicles!

My wife, Nancy, and I purchased a Tesla Model S Plaid two years ago. Many were puzzled as to why a Toyota dealer would opt for another brand, especially an EV (considering Toyota “missed the all-EV boat” and instead pursued Hydrogen fuel cells). One significant reason was that Tesla wasn't just at the forefront of electric vehicles but also in autonomy. Now in our eighties, Nancy and I realize that there will come a time when we may not be fit to drive. Seniors who come across this column will relate to the melancholy of the day when you have to “hand over your keys” to your offspring. Sixteen years ago, I penned a column titled "Grandma and Grandpa’s Freedom Machine." At 66, I knew many clients whose families had confronted this somber moment. It became my concern when their children reached out, suggesting I shouldn't allow their parents to drive. Understandably, there wasn't much I could, or would, do, leaving the difficult decision to the concerned offspring.

Our enthusiasm was palpable when we received our new Tesla Plaid, equipped with the FSD (full self-driving) software. However, our elation was short-lived when the so-called fully autonomous software fell drastically short of our safety expectations. For three consecutive years, Elon Musk's recurring promises that “safe, fully self-driving Teslas would materialize within the year” proved to be overconfident. Despite numerous updates, the software consistently failed to safely pilot our Tesla Plaid. Often, we had to interject, overriding the autopilot to manage the steering, brakes, or accelerator. On multiple occasions, we were on the verge of mishaps.

From Walter Isaacson's recent biography of Elon Musk, I gathered that there was a pivotal shift in the development of autonomous software. Instead of using “instructions” like DON’T CROSS A DOUBLE LINE or STOP AT RED LIGHTS, the new approach harnessed video clips from proficient Tesla drivers covering millions of miles. Software teams are now meticulously analyzing clips from myriad Tesla users, selectively preserving those that reflect the caliber of a “Five Star Uber Driver,” as Musk would say. Tesla's innovative “Neuro-linking” method programs computers to mimic the neural wiring of human brains. Just as children emulate adults to learn basic tasks like walking, drinking, or using the restroom, machines too can learn from human demonstrations.

Tesla has already transitioned to manufacturing cars devoid of radar and will soon roll out vehicles solely equipped with cameras. While most of the industry leans on lasers and radar, believing cameras insufficient, Tesla, having embraced camera technology from its inception and with a significantly larger fleet on the roads, holds a treasure trove of valuable driving data.

I'm going to venture a prediction: within the next year, Tesla will be rolling out fully self-driving cars that surpass the safety of most human-driven vehicles. Perhaps Nancy and I won’t have to part with our “Freedom Machine” after all.

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