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Tech News: Automakers Accelerate the March Toward Self-Drive

Autonomous-Driving_16Tesla_Model-S_Autopilot_ES_04.jpg 2016 Tesla Model S Autopilot | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

CARS.COM — Tesla Motors isn’t one to take criticism lightly, especially when it involves safety features and self-drive systems. The Silicon Valley-based automaker has recently started adding certain safety features, including an updated version of emergency brake assist, back into its new vehicles. Ironically, this updated emergency brake assist is less capable than the system fitted to Tesla cars prior to October 2016.

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If that sounds a little strange, trust us, you’re not alone in thinking it. Last fall, Tesla made the bold announcement that each of its new cars would be equipped to handle Level 5 autonomous drive. In case you were wondering, that’s the highest level any self-driving system can go, and it equates to full autonomous driving.

Except Tesla only gave passing mention to the fact that new examples of its Model S luxury sedan, Model X crossover and the upcoming Model 3 sedan, set to enter production this July, would not have certain safety features that were fitted to earlier cars. These features, found in Tesla vehicles fitted with Autopilot 1.0 (the first iteration of the automaker’s self-driving system), included emergency brake assist, lane holding, collision warning and active cruise control.

Why Should I Care? Consumer Reports recently dinged Tesla Motors with a points reduction in the publication’s stringent rankings, due primarily to the lack of emergency brake assist on its new cars. Tesla has been updating its vehicles with over-the-air software updates, though the latest version of emergency brake assist only works at speeds up to 28 mph versus a 90-mph limit in older models.

Tesla has stated an update with the higher limit is in the pipeline, though no exact date has been given. This hedging when it comes to safety features might not dissuade diehard Tesla faithful, though new customers (especially for the highly anticipated $35,000 Model 3) might be less forgiving when it comes to knowing what safety features are fitted onto their vehicle.

While Consumer Reports’ points deduction drops the Model 3 to third place in the publication’s rankings for ultraluxury vehicles, the bigger message here is that Tesla’s wait-and-see approach to safety doesn’t dent the company’s image in the long term. Wireless automobile updates are innovative, though they can still lead to old-fashioned headaches if consumers don’t understand exactly what is being updated, and when.

Waymo Opens Self-Driving Minivans to Public

Waymo, the self-drive research arm of Google, is putting its self-driving fleet of Chrysler minivans and Lexus SUVs into the hands of everyday users. The fleet of vehicles will be operated in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, and interested parties can sign up online to participate in the program. Once accepted, users are encouraged to use the fleet on an everyday basis, not simply for one or two rides.
The news of this program came at the same time Chrysler announced 500 of its Pacifica Hybrid minivans would be converted by Waymo to self-drive functionality. These examples join an initial batch of 100 Pacifica minivans that are already part of the ongoing research and development program. 

Why Should I Care? Despite Waymo making big waves about the many millions of miles of testing its self-drive fleet has undertaken along with “billions” of computer simulation miles nothing beats putting vehicles into actual working service.

Of course, there isn’t going to be carte blanche when it comes to this self-drive testing program. First, applicants are screened to make certain their “transportation needs” (to quote Waymo) all fit within the parameters set by Waymo. That means routine errands and local drives are OK, while any long-distance trips outside the Phoenix area are out of the question. That’s not ideal for handling the unexpected, though it remains a solid step toward convincing people that self-drive systems aren’t all hype and marketing bluster.

A Waymo engineer will be behind the wheel, should human intervention be needed at any time during a given journey.

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