Tesla’s Autopilot is in the news these days with the tragic death of a Tesla owner while Autopilot was in use. However, there are at least five competitors with technology that they assert works similarly to Autopilot, many of whom have been on the roads longer than Tesla’s offering.
Why hasn’t the inevitable happened with them? One frequently promoted hypothesis is that it’s because their technology is better. A more credible one is that it’s because their technology is quite a bit worse, so is much less used by drivers.
Let’s start with the question of which other companies have similar capabilities on the road today. Car and Driver magazine tested offerings from four companies back to back: Tesla, Mercedes, BMW, and Infiniti. Motor Trend tested Cadillac and Hyundai capabilities against the Tesla and Mercedes offerings as well.
There are numerous semi-autonomous capabilities on most modern cars that we take for granted. Some are ones that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the US and similar organizations in other countries have strongly advocated for over the years due to their impressive safety improvements. The table below provides a summary of the various capabilities and which manufacturers provide them.
The first observation that can be made is that Tesla offers more features than other companies, but all six companies offer numerous driver assist features. Cars are assisting drivers much more than most people realize these days.
Tesla is somewhat differentiated by offering this technology on all of its cars, but as it only has two at present, this isn’t a major point. More important is that the other manufacturers offer the more advanced features only on their most expensive cars, and it’s not available on their mass-market offerings. In theory, the Cadillac has lane following with its current level of technology, but in practice, it worked so poorly that it is unusable in its current version per Motor Trend.
What did Car and Driver say about the various systems?
Well, on the key metric related to Autopilot, it’s much better than the other systems.
The key row is the number of lane control interruptions on a 50-mile route. They drove each car across a 50-mile (80-km) route involving highway and rural roads as well as the main street of a town. This is a decent representation of average roads in the USA, disrepair and all, including rainy night driving.
The Tesla handled far more of the scenarios than any other vehicle. While others required driver input every mile or more on average, Tesla was closer to double that, handling a greater number of conditions with greater ease.
The sedan that begs to differ is this test’s clear winner. With utmost confidence and only two cautions from legal counsel—“Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time”—the Tesla Model S locks onto the path ahead with a cruise missile’s determination and your hands resting on your lap.
The Tesla’s Autosteer performance can be distinguished from our other contenders by two words: no wobbling. This car identifies the exact center of your lane of travel and holds that course with minimal deviation. This system rises well above parlor-trick status to beg your use in daily driving.
That’s an important point. Tesla’s offering is so superior that it actually is trustworthy while the others per back-to-back testing aren’t. What is trustworthy is used, which is possibly part of the reason why Tesla publishes how many miles have been driven under its more advanced features and the other car companies don’t. (Another possible reason is that Tesla knows how many miles it has been used for due to its approach to the automation, and the other car companies don’t.)
What about Motor Trend?
Motor Trend tested a lot of different conditions, including cars cutting into the lane, cars braking in front of the car, acceleration when traffic speeds up, and very importantly, how many times people had to intervene over two different types of driving roads: “a 35-mile stretch of an immaculately maintained 65-mph toll road and a windy 17-mile, 55-mph two-laner.”
What did they find on the key question of how usable the advanced features were?
There’s little comparison. The Cadillac was so poor that it couldn’t be considered a real offering, and the Tesla is literally an order of magnitude better than the other cars under real-world conditions in one test. The differentiation from competitive offerings is even more pronounced in Motor Trend‘s tests than in Car & Driver‘s.
Tesla’s current production capabilities in two sets of automotive journalist testing outshone their competitors. While some competitors have shown impressive capabilities in artificial demonstrations or non-production research work, a production Tesla today per Motor Trend “is nearly a Level 3 car.”
Is this due to the magazines being biased sources, as someone insisted to me recently? Given that Tesla spends $6 per car sold on advertising compared to competitors’ thousands of dollars per car on their premium models, it’s hard to imagine that any bias exists in Tesla’s favour with the mainstream automotive press.
This level of sophistication and competence leads to drivers using it. A large part of the reason Tesla is in the spotlight for the fatality is because its driver assist features are so much better than its competitors. Simply put, fatalities are a statistical inevitability of driving, but the other manufacturers’ technology hasn’t been used enough that the sad inevitability has occurred yet.
Perversely, the better autonomous driving technology gets, the more deaths will occur while it is being used. Tesla is merely at the leading edge of this reality.