By Jim Ringold
A good friend recently wrote me the following: “We all know that you fell out of love with German cars. But, why did you fall in love with a self-driving thing?”
It is the same question, in essence, as stick shift versus automatic transmission. Both steering and shifting can provide much personal satisfaction when accomplished well, and extreme satisfaction when done extremely well.
I made a point of specifying the “Muncie Rock Crusher” close ratio stick shift, four speed when checking the order boxes on my beloved 1968, 327 cubic inch Corvette. It was not as fast as the almost equally priced 428 “truck engine” Vette, but it was a more satisfying and balanced drive and a real joy to run up to 6,000 RPMs in each gear. So I know and love “do it yourself” driving.
Eventually, a better electronic interface between the gas pedal, transmission, and fuel-injected gas engine made “automatic” shifting faster and more reliable than a “stick.” Additional automatic gears, six or more gears, kept gas engines in their low RPM, high-torque range to improve efficiency and somewhat reduce pollution. Gasoline burners currently provide smooth and efficient locomotion and are at the peak of their achievable performance from a gallon of gas. But they still pollute.
As to why I “fell out of love” with BMW after a baker’s dozen of BMWs between my wife and I, including the luscious “M” cars? Well, that is another story for another time and place.
After BMWs, a leap of faith put us in possession of an early Tesla Model X. The love affair with a completely battery-powered, plug-in-to-charge vehicle blossomed. Gone were the trips to a “filling station” to inhale volatiles and pay for the privilege. Gone was the “shifting” of the transmission, since the broad torque range of an electric motor made that extremely complicated electro/mechanical marvel obsolete and unnecessary. The side effects were reduced vehicle cost and lighter vehicle weight — a win-win if there ever was one.
Our second Tesla was a Model 3 that we physically stood in line to reserve on the first day it was for sale. We invested the $4,000 in Autopilot because I, quite correctly, guessed that the price would never be cheaper. On January 17, 2022, Tesla “Full Self Driving” (FSD), the most advance version of Autopilot, will go from $10,000 to $12,000.
FSD has taken longer to achieve than Elon Musk and his crew ever imagined, but they have stuck with it and several major revisions in approach later, it is close to what we paid for. These step-by-step revisions and updates were implemented in our garage with a feed from our internet connection, delivered through Wi-Fi to the Model 3. Like a never-ending string of surprise packages, the improved driving capabilities keep coming our way. Watching the improvements is engrossing.
The ability to summon your driverless Tesla to you from hundreds of feet away is great fun and useful in keeping your feet dry in the rain. Even the Model X was enhanced with the ability to stay in its freeway lane and eventually pass slower cars. The “self-driving thing,” though limited in capability, I’ve found greatly reduces long-distance driving fatigue. Not constantly looking to make sure the car is in the middle of its lane is definitely not a macho thing, but rather leads to attention-devouring boredom. In fact, I found that trips were safer because I could let my eyes wander and better take in events unfolding with the other cars around me, even without eyes in the back of my head.
The early Model X was limited, as I was, by the lack of 360 degree vision, because it was not equipped with the later four side view cameras. But it still had most desirable driving features.
Tesla, early on, determined that the Mobileye software and the NVIDIA processor being used, while good, were not going to allow full self driving to be achieved. As is Tesla’s winning way of doing things, the Autopilot software was brought in house. And a computer hardware design genius was solicited to design a computer processor dedicated to those tasks required for FSD. And when the new processor was implemented, there were two of them in a fully redundant configuration, as should be mandatory in a self-driving vehicle. The icing on the cake was a no-cost — as in, totally free — upgrade in all Teslas that included the FSD software suite. Memo to BMW, take note.
So, after years of waiting, I now have those eyes in the back of my head, and on the sides too, by the way. My peripheral vision is now superhuman as well. Having driven extremely carefully (and my wife was better than me at the Tesla Safety Score test), we were allowed by Tesla to start using the FSD beta software. The surprise packages got better and more frequent as Tesla drivers provided feedback to the Tesla Mother Ship.
Devices Used to Allow Full Self Driving
Both our Teslas had forward looking microwave radar, at a chosen frequency, to see through rain and fog, but FSD development led to a point where the Tesla team learned that what the cameras (now eight) were seeing did not have to be processed to provide the necessary FSD information. The raw data from the photons collected by the cameras could reach the image processing stage milliseconds faster if that processing was eliminated. In fact, doing so also made seeing at night, in rain, and in fog much better.
At the same time, a problem for the team was the fact that the radar and the cameras provided information at different rates and it was hard for the computer to synchronize the two. Besides, how was the processor to know which one to believe as the information streamed in, in two quite different forms? The result was that the radar information was increasingly being ignored, and in newer Teslas the radar was totally eliminated.
Back to the current state of FSD: with FSD on city streets in beta release, a Tesla can now negotiate traffic on all styles of roads, even roads it has never been on before. It sees and processes only the important information without distraction or blinking, with eyes (cameras) all around to form a 360 degree field of continuous view. Better than a human, more like a fly.
I fully realize and try to compensate for the fact that as I age, I am not as observant and alert as I once was. But the Model 3 is never distracted. It is unnerving at first, my wife says scary. But part of that is the Tesla is not listening to her! A 360 degree view example: In FSD, our Tesla drove into the right turn lane and stopped at the red light at an intersection that is six lane in both directions. Holding the steering wheel I was looking at traffic like the Model 3 was. We saw cars turning in front of us from an opposing left turn lane. And there was traffic coming from the left. All that traffic cleared and the Tesla still didn’t make the “right on red” turn. I looked all around, and only then did I see a bicycle rider had come up on my right and was considering pulling out to my right. I was not imagining a bicycle would appear there, but the car saw it!
I’m going to love more advanced FSD, no blow to the ego — just a safer trip. Wonderful will be the day when everyone has a FSD car. Just not so much for the car insurance companies! And in addition to being safer, to me it is just plain fun!
There are many smart people at Tesla working on Full Self Driving, pouring over miles of code and refining it. Their efforts show true improvement month after month.
I am going to estimate that FSD is about ready to be released to all who paid for it. It is that close to being opened to the extra fine tuning that thousands of additional Teslas sending feedback will provide.
Another hint to this pending release is this verbiage with the current FSD improvements by Tesla:
“For maximum safety and accountability, use of Full Self-Driving (Beta) will be suspended if improper usage is detected. Improper usage is when you, or another driver of your vehicle, receive five ‘Forced Autopilot Disengagements’. A disengagement is when the Autopilot system disengages for the remainder of a trip after the driver receives several audio and visual warnings for inattentiveness. Driver-initiated disengagements do not count as improper usage and are expected from the driver. Keep your hands on the wheel and remain attentive at all times. Use of any hand-held devices while using Autopilot is not allowed. And will be detected by the ninth, inside the car, camera.”
Tesla is preparing for the abusers that always raise their heads, the hapless competition trying to stop progress, and those trying to sell more ink. But I can see what the future is bringing and it is safe and fun. That is why I am falling in love with FSD. Besides, you can always take over and drive your Tesla like in the old days!
Here is a quote, for your reference, of quite a complete list by Teslarati of the current FSD features: “Tesla FSD (Full Self Driving) features Navigate on Autopilot Beta, Auto Lane Change, Autopark, Summon, Smart Summon, and Traffic and Stop Sign Control Beta, as well as Autopilot’s two features: Traffic-Aware Cruise Control and Autosteer. Tesla FSD is missing one feature (from full release): Autosteer on City Streets, which has been in development for several years.”
Article by Jim Ringold — firstname.lastname@example.org — for CleanTechnica exclusively.