In our most recent episode of CleanTech Talk, I talked with Chanan Bos, CleanTechnica‘s Director of Digital Media. Last week, I published our chat about automobile infotainment systems. This next portion of our discussion covered autonomous and semi-autonomous driving systems.
Chanan started off by highlighting that there are multiple different types of semi-autonomous driving systems out there right now in commercial cars. Since he’s reviewing the car right now, he started off talking about the system in the Fiat 500e — which includes semi-autonomous driver-assist features like lane assist and adaptive cruise control. This is what is standard in many new cars today, but this type of system has clear limits that we’ll come back to later.
Chanan noted that it’s unclear where Chinese smart EV startup Xpeng is — it’s one of the companies truly putting extensive resources into a software team developing this type of technology, and is using top-of-market hardware from NVIDIA and others, but we don’t have much more insight into the process and potential than that. Mobileye and Waymo may also be on a path toward fully autonomous cars, but it’s again hard to see where exactly they are and where their paths are leading.
Naturally, we also talked a lot about Tesla. Chanan explained why Tesla moved from using radar as well as vision tech to now just using pure vision tech. (This is a change made in recent months that we’ve written about a few times.) Overall, though, a key is that Tesla’s system is sort of being taught to think on its own, rather than just following specific rules put into the software code by humans. “They see things they think what could happen, whereas most driver-assists don’t. … Their system — it may seem to be at a similar level now, until the learning process is finally more optimized and can actually go faster and faster and faster. I think we’re soon going to start to see more of that once they finally finish to switching to 360. That is when they will finally start getting where Elon Musk has promised Tesla would be for years.”
I put the same thoughts in my own words, which you can hear in more detail on the podcast, but a key point is that the output may look similar right now across all of these brands and cars, but the input is very different in the case of Tesla. However, I also point out that it’s hard to have as much faith in Tesla’s approach in the past due to how long certain things have been delayed. It was practically guaranteed that “Full Self-Driving” in customer cars would be “feature completed” by the end of 2019, which was the year I bought my Tesla Model 3. If you dig up statements from Elon at the time, he was certain of it. It’s now two years later and we still don’t have “feature complete” Full Self-Driving (FSD), which is now FSD Beta and should be coming in … perhaps two weeks? (That’s the most popular Tesla joke these days because it’s been ~2 weeks for ~6 months.) That said, the hurdles Tesla identified and how the company is getting over them — when we get those details — do seem to show convincing efforts to get to FSD — and perhaps even robotaxis someday. But the completely missed timelines for years on end do make one think that there are deeper issues with understanding and acknowledging the complexity of the problem that will delay actual robotaxi-FSD much longer than many Tesla fans expect. We shall see.
We then talked at length about the Tesla story and challenges from a big-picture view before I let Chanan loose to explain and talk about other systems more. He mentioned an interesting case of a Chinese company that has already launched robotaxis in China, and he also touched on Waymo, saying, “you can’t grow that to a worldwide system no matter how much you want.” He also discussed the curious case of NVIDIA a bit, and then several other companies more briefly.
I ended the podcast by asking Chanan when and where he’d ride in his first robotaxi, which took a couple of minutes to consider and answer. Listen to the podcast to hear that. You can listen via the embedded SoundCloud player above or on plenty of other podcast networks. Check them out here:
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