Tesla is issuing a pair of software releases to improve its vehicles, including new range improvements and the ability to autopilot. Sir Richard Branson, mid-way through his quest to build a space launch business, now says he's looking at building cars. Meanwhile, automobile manufacturers are outlining their plans for self-driving cars and rumor has it that Apple is getting into the field. The next Internet of Things is the Internet of Cars (IoC).
A software upgrade for Tesla to make it "impossible" to run out of battery power before reaching a charger was announced last week: Version 6.2 communications in real time with Tesla's supercharge networks and destination chargers. The range assurance feature lets drivers know when they are starting to stray beyond the range of known charging locations, then provides a map to the closest charger, factoring in elevation and wind speed to determine range.
Tesla's next software upgrade, scheduled about three months from now, will include an auto-steering function. The feature is supposed to keep the car within the lines on the highway at an appropriate speed if you happen to own a Tesla Model S built since October—no word what earlier owners have to do to get a hardware upgrade (i.e., a newer model).
However, while Tesla's car may be able to drive itself in an "autopilot" mode, there are no laws on the books covering such operations. Four states and the District of Columbia have laws on how self-driving cars can be tested, but there's nothing on the books in the U.S. that clearly states you can operate a vehicle in self-driving mode. Federal regulation isn't even close to addressing how to certify and bless autonomous vehicles operating at highway speeds.
Traditional auto manufacturers are talking up the ability of vehicles to act on their own in a stepwise fashion, first conducting low-speed, short-move operations without a driver. Today, some vehicles will parallel park on their own. Near-term plans extend autonomy by enablling a vehicle to park on its own without the driver seated in it, with it pulling into a home garage or going to a pre-designated parking spot within a larger building.
Operations at highway speeds require a combination of sensors and the ability to "fuse" all of the data into a useful picture of the environment in real time. Tesla's autonomous software upgrade would leapfrog the traditional auto industry's roadmap for self-driving cars by at least five years from a technical standpoint.
Vehicles and drivers will benefit from networking, but how such information is brought into the autonomous model is more circumspect. Real time information on traffic accidents can be relayed to the vehicle to provide the driver with options to re-route around the blockage—but what if everyone's smart car takes the same route in roughly the same time window? The idea of a traffic routing service becomes more interesting, with the ability to distribute vehicles onto multiple alternate routes based upon driver preferences and the willingness of the driver to accept the route based upon the larger "picture" of data gathered from traffic reports, cameras and the location and speeds of other vehicles.
Another question is if autonomous vehicles should be able or required to tie into "smart roads" that provide information on traffic conditions, with the wireless network embedded within or next to the road surface. A smart road could provide signals for better and more accurate vehicle navigation in the immediate environment, and issue warnings and slowdown notices in case of accidents and traffic congestion.
Nobody knows how the new world of autonomous vehicles will all play out, but the future is intriguing enough to attract the likes of Apple and Richard Branson. The question becomes how fast and how agile traditional automobile companies can become in the face of new competitors such as Tesla.
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