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Tesla vs. the World

The Best Beta Test in Autonomous Cars

Written by Keith Kohl
Posted January 15, 2016

After watching the Obama administration pledge to spend $4 billion to fast-track driverless cars on U.S. roads, there should be no question that autonomous technology is speeding forward.

It's being picked up by some of the world's largest automakers, and even a few tech giants are getting in on the action.

But somehow, all of the designs so far seem to skip over one very simple — and somewhat necessary — aspect of the driving experience: parking.

At first thought, this doesn't seem too complicated, given the fact that the car would only have to deal with stationary obstacles.

A car's ability to park itself isn't a new concept. Cars have been able to park themselves using cameras and sensors for years, and many new cars today are sold with the ability already installed. Granted, more often than not it's only to parallel park, which is a problem that will need to be addressed before your car can truly drive itself.

It is interesting to note, however, that Tesla only recently added self-parking to the list of things its Model S cars can do.

Of course, we can attribute that to the dramatically different testing models...

Tech by Tesla

Tesla's Model S is known for its ability to update and upgrade its systems wirelessly, which is how the vehicle's autonomous functions have been installed so far.

If you recall, the first upgrade was made without warning; Model S owners woke up one morning to find that their cars could drive themselvesto an extent. It's like the ultimate beta test: Customers you already have and who are already familiar with your current product get to test out a new feature right away.

What's more, the cars were able to learn from each other as the beta testing went on. The connected Model S's sent data to the cloud about corrections made by their drivers and shared adjustments with each other.

Could it get any easier?

If not, it could certainly get more difficult...

You see, when given new toys to test out, excited people are prone to do silly things with them, such as climbing into the back of the car to let it drive itself down the highway.

And herein lies the problem with this fantastic beta model: There's not much room for error. The new functions were already in the hands of the customers, who could then use them as responsibly or irresponsibly as they wished.

Don't get me wrong; it was still an amazing idea. And since then, Tesla has cut back on the autonomous functions of its cars until such a time as they can be more safely implemented.

But one has to wonder if the traditional testing model would have turned out a little better...

The Rest of the Car-Making World

As with many things Tesla does, there is no other company doing things the same way to compare results.

Every other company working on autonomous cars — to include big names in the automobile industry as well as the tech industry — is working with the more traditional testing phases.

These include building cars, and sometimes private roads to test them on, and ensuring that all processes work as expected long before they ever get to consumers.

Google has been testing its driverless car for almost a year now. And while it has seen public roads, the company has not come anywhere near releasing it as a consumer product.

Similarly, Apple (rumored to be building a car) and Faraday Future are both building their cars from the ground up, basing their designs on the fact that they will be electric and driverless when they are first released.

Traditional car companies, meanwhile, are building onto their existing car designs.

Nissan is working on an autonomous car based on its all-electric Leaf. The company has been testing autonomous functions using cameras and radar sensors — a system jointly called lidar.

Nissan expects its cars to be able to drive themselves on highways by 2018 and through city streets by 2020.

Earlier in January, the company also showed off its plan for self-parking abilities: The car's driver will have to leave the car and activate the parking software through an app.

Other car companies that have offered self-parking in the past include Ford, Toyota, and BMW. All of those have tested their cars privately and only offered driverless abilities in certain models.

It's probably safer than Tesla's beta testing. But there's one more question that may be plaguing all of these companies...

What's Best for Business?

Is it better to release the product out in phases or to get everything possible right before letting it out into the world?

Well, on one hand, Tesla is getting real-world data for its autonomous software and constantly improving it. On the other, the traditional car companies already have much bigger production numbers and will be able to roll out their driverless cars en masse when they're completely ready.

So which is more important: data or production levels? Unfortunately, only time will really answer that question for us... though not too much time — the consensus seems to be that mostly autonomous cars will be the norm by 2020.

For now, it's Tesla vs. the World, and there's no guarantee the company will stay on top.

Until next time,

Keith Kohl Signature

Keith Kohl

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A true insider in the energy markets, Keith is one of few financial reporters to have visited the Alberta oil sands. His research has helped thousands of investors capitalize from the rapidly changing face of energy. Keith connects with hundreds of thousands of readers as the Managing Editor of Energy & Capital as well as Investment Director of Angel Publishing's Energy Investor. For years, Keith has been providing in-depth coverage of the Bakken, the Haynesville Shale, and the Marcellus natural gas formations — all ahead of the mainstream media. For more on Keith, go to his editor's page.

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