Tesla has announced that its owners have driven over 100 million miles using the company’s autonomous Autopilot feature. Tesla Director of Autopilot Programs Sterling Anderson told an audience at EmTech Digital conference that the data collected from drivers is what Tesla is using to refine their autonomous driving programs. The company has about 70,000 vehicles on the road that have Autopilot functions. Drivers who enable the function log around 2.6 million miles a day, which far outpaces Google, whose autonomous driving program has logged around 1.5 million miles to date.
Tesla’s Autopilot started with its Model S sedan in October of 2014. The next year, Tesla started rolling out its 7.0 software update, which added new features such as auto-steer, traffic-aware cruise control, auto park and auto lane change. This does not mean that Tesla is fully autonomous in the same way that Google wants its cars to be. Google is testing its cars without drivers whenever possible. The Model S can, however, now accomplish many common driving interactions by itself. What does this mean for Model S drivers? When they are driving on a highway setting, a driver can operate with no hands on the wheel and his or her foot off the pedal.
Tesla is now at Level 2 on the autonomous vehicle spectrum defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That’s two levels below the highest degree of vehicle autonomy, Level 4, which means a car which can be driven without any human intervention at any point.
Anderson’s comments stressed the differences in the self-driving capabilities of its current cars and what Tesla wants to do in the future. As he stressed again, Autopilot is not a license to take a nap on the road. Autopilot should only be “used with a driver fully engaged, fully in the loop, using their cognitive abilities as the normally would,” he said. Anderson said drivers must “be prepared to take over” at a moment’s notice. Tesla also emphasized that car owners need to opt-in to be able to use Autopilot on Model S or Model X cars that are equipped with the hardware.
Tesla’s comments should be viewed in the context of its somewhat spotty safety record when Autopilot is deployed. The software rollout bypassed new regulations that will be issued by the NHTSA. Autopilot was initially misused by drivers who were excited by the technology. The resulting YouTube videos posed some problems for Tesla, including ones showing accidents. Tesla has since clarified that the technology should be used with caution since it is still an open beta product.
Of course Tesla cannot prevent its customers from doing stupid things. A driver recently posted a video of a mishap he had in his Model S, which he had tried to summon from a parking space without actually being behind the wheel. The car crashed into a parked trailer. Tesla then issued an update making it more difficult to crash into a parked vehicle. Still, Tesla has a leg-up on its competition, since the notion of making an autonomous vehicle can only come to fruition with millions of man-hours of testing.