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Friday, May 31, 2024

Finally, Autonomous Driving is Here

My wife Nancy and I bought our first Tesla over 3 years ago. It’s a top-of-the-line Model S "Plaid" model, and the TSD (Tesla Self-Driving) package option was included. Even though the software for autonomous driving was included, Tesla would not enable it unless the driver demonstrated the ability to drive very safely.

This feature was the primary motivation for our purchase of the Tesla. Ironically, I'm a Toyota dealer in North Palm Beach, and we have always driven vehicles manufactured by Toyota. However, we’re both in our eighties now, and the sad reality that we may not be able to drive safely for much longer weighs heavily on our minds. How wonderful it would be, we thought, to be able to hop into our own car anytime and say, “Take us to Publix, Walgreens, or Taco Bell,” and be driven safely there and back home by an autonomous vehicle!

For over a year, we struggled to score high enough in safe driving to motivate Tesla to activate our (already paid for) autonomous software. Tesla has eight exterior cameras and one interior camera on our Plaid, and they “watch” how the driver operates the vehicle. After every drive, a score is registered. A 100% score was required over 30 days to activate the autonomous feature. Our scores got better, and Tesla lowered the minimum acceptable score. Once TSD was turned on, it could be turned off again for 30 days if you didn’t keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

We were very disappointed in the TSD when it was first activated. It was “flat scary”! There's an intersection we drive in and out of every day when we leave our home that's tricky. The 2-lane road is quite narrow, and there's an S-curve with two stop signs when we leave or enter. The main road we must drive on has another S-curve from the east and a tall bridge to the west. Cars coming over the bridge aren't visible until they come down from the rise of the bridge, and cars from the east aren't visible until they come around the curve. Our Tesla Plaid simply could not "figure out" how to drive out of our neighborhood. The steering wheel would turn wildly left and right, and the brake and accelerator would be applied “wildly.” After this frightening display, the TSD would suddenly disengage.

We gave up on even trying TSD to leave or re-enter our neighborhood and used it only on simple trips. We also experienced difficulty in different areas based on weather, traffic conditions, and the quality of road lines and traffic signals. For a smooth, safe autonomous ride, everything had to be just right for the TSD.

Happily, Tesla was working very hard to improve their TSD, and there were frequent software updates, sometimes weekly or more. At some point, Tesla began using the millions of videos recorded daily by millions of Tesla drivers to program their software. They select videos from only safe drivers, which contrasted with writing the computer code to teach the Tesla how to drive.

After almost every software update, we would try out the TSD, and even though we saw improvements, they were still not "ready for prime time" and still couldn’t safely let us leave or reenter our neighborhood. About a month ago, it happened! It was a quantum leap in improvement! We can now safely leave and enter our neighborhood or drive anywhere we want.

The TSD is still not perfect. Nancy and I do a weekly live radio talk show every Saturday morning, and we must leave for the radio station shortly after 7 AM, just after sunrise. Two Saturdays ago, on the way to the radio station, our Tesla “ran a red light” and almost made a dangerous lane change on I-95. I think what caused this rare but dangerous glitch was the “sun.” It was shortly after 7 AM EST when our Tesla ran the light. The Tesla was headed south, and the sun was at such an angle that it “blinded” the Tesla’s cameras. The second dangerous mistake the TSD made 5 minutes later was also because the sun did not allow the Tesla’s cameras to see.

I paused writing this column to go with Nancy to see her doctor relating to a test. On the way, our Tesla made another dangerous error in making a U-turn on a heavily trafficked road named Military Trail. In all three dangerous TSD incidents I’ve described, the driver (me this morning) was alert and able to avoid an accident. This rule should remain strictly enforced for a long time, even after the TSD is claimed to be “perfected.”

But the good news is, even with these potentially dangerous anomalies in TSD, being driven by an autonomous car is a pleasure. The TSD software has “eight outside eyes” outside the cabin of the Tesla. It sees everything faster than a human driver and it sees 360 degrees simultaneously and instantaneously. It has a ninth camera inside to be sure the passenger in the driver’s seat is alert with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Think about how many places you have to turn your head to change lanes in heavy traffic on the expressway. Our Tesla gets us there faster and smarter than we do when we’re driving. The Tesla also doesn’t get angry at bad drivers on the road, doesn’t text, or talk on the telephone. It’s a better driver than Nancy or me and it’s getting better faster and faster.

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