Rumors: Tesla Performed First Test Drives From Coast-to-Coast in Autonomous Mode

Leon Musk had announced it already for end of 2017, but now rumors are intensifying that Tesla is working on doing it. A drive in a production vehicle from coast to coast in autonomous mode. A feat over a distance of 2,800 miles or 4,500 kilometers.

The Autopilot has been switched on almost 3 years ago in all Teslas and ran through several iterations. Also the Autopilot hardware has been extended. Since October 2016 the extended Hardware Kit 2.0 has been built into all new cars. Autopilot became a distinguishing Tesla feature.

Elon Musk promised back then to perform a test drive end of 2017, where for the entire distance no driver interference is necessary, but the car would master the 2,800 miles all by itself. A video of such a test drive along a few miles off from highways was released end of 2016.

A post in the reddit-Teslamotors-forum that popped up today started discussing in how far such a test drive is realistic and what they would implicate. An anonymous source from inside Tesla confirmed that multiple test drives have taken place. Those test drives serve to teach the system dealing with situations that confused the Autopilot and repeat them until the Autopilot masters them. So far the car had 30 so-called ‘disengagements.’ A disengagement is a situation that the vehicle’s Autopilot encounters, where it hands control back to the safety driver. Thirty disengagements mean that the car hands over control to the driver every 150 kilometers (roughly 90 miles), resulting in 11 engagements per 1,000 miles.

Compared to the companies testing in California, who have to submit every year a Disengagement Report to the California DMV, the numbers look pretty good. The numbers from the report from early 2017, which included the drives until November 2016, show that Tesla improved massively – down from 327 disengagements to 11 per 1,000 miles. BMW, Ford, and Nissan were in a similar range. Only Waymo is far ahead with less than 0.2 disengagements per 1,000 miles.

But of course we are comparing multiple pairs of shoes. The Disengagement Reports for the California DMV are prepared for the agency and serve for technology development and status update for the DMV. Tesla is aiming with its drive from coast to coast to to a PR-stunt. Internal Tesla-sources said that Tesla engineers working on the Autopilot are preparing those test drives very carefully. And that includes avoiding extreme weather conditions (like snow), avoiding construction zones (cones), driving only on Highways with at least two lanes, and a preparatory drive with scouting vehicles ahead of the test vehicle.

What makes this feat more difficult is that Tesla’s production vehicles are not equipped with Lidars. Those are used by almost everyone else who’s serious about developing autonomous cars. Elon Musk’s stance is that Tesla can do without expensive Lidars. Those sensors today cost between 4,000 and 75,000 dollars. Given the fast development of cameras and algorithms and their plummeting prices he could be proven right not to bet on Lidars.

Anyhow: Tesla owners with a car younger than October 2016 will benefit from it, as soon as the results from the drive will be integrated in an Autopilot update and uploaded to over 100,000 Tesla Model S, X, and 3.

This article has also been published in German.

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