Even though Tesla’s Autopilot is the most advanced system, is it enough?
It seems like Teslas are dropping like flies lately. Yet another one of Elon Musk’s EVs has crashed and once again, the driver behind the wheel claims that he was not to blame for the wreck. Instead, owner Albert Scaglione is pointing his finger at the 2016 Model X’s Autopilot system for running his SUV into a guardrail along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The 77-year-old driver and his 54-year-old passenger were found injured although the severity of their injuries is unknown.
Tesla mentioned that it sent a routine post-crash message to the customer to ensure that they were okay but had not heard a response. Similarly, Tesla has been unable to access data from the Model X to see if Autopilot really was engaged at the time of the crash. Details about this accident, including confirmation or dismissal of the driver's claims, will probably come from Tesla soon. This accident comes only a week after news that an Autopilot-enabled Model S crashed into a trailer and killed its driver in May, making it the first death due to happen in a semi-autonomous car. Given the circumstances of that accident, we suggested that Tesla needed to upgrade its sensors to better allow the Autopilot system to see dangers ahead.
Apparently Stefan Sommer, the CEO Of German auto parts giant ZF Friedrichshafen, agrees with us. Speaking to Automotive News, Sommer outlined three technologies he thinks are key for a safer autonomous car. These are short and long range radar as well as a picture processing camera technology. On Autopilot-enabled Teslas there are 12 ultrasonic sensors surrounding the car that have a range of 16 feet, a long range radar (positioned low on the car) and a picture processing camera as Sommer outlined. He also believes that Tesla's sensors are insufficient for high-speed autonomous driving and should be replaced by LIDAR, or laser-based radar that specializes in sensing contours of obstacles.
If Sommer’s words hold any water, they should inspire Tesla and other companies who are hoping to debut autonomous vehicles to add additional long range radar sensors to cover blind spots where the radar, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors fail to see. LIDAR or additional radar sensors would also help improve a car's eyesight, so to speak, so that it could get a better view of the road and potential obstacles. Currently, LIDAR is too expensive for use in mainstream applications, but then again so was the technology in an iPhone a decade ago. Various firms are working with LIDAR to help reduce the cost of the technology and allow it to become practical for mass use. Hopefully the learning curve isn't steep.