In one bad week in March, two people were indirectly killed by automated driving systems. A Tesla vehicle drove into a barrier, killing its driver, and an Uber vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian crossing the street. The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary reports on both accidents came out recently, and these bring us as close as we’re going to get to a definitive view of what actually happened. What can we learn from these two crashes?
There is one outstanding factor that makes these two crashes look different on the surface: Tesla’s algorithm misidentified a lane split and actively accelerated into the barrier, while the Uber system eventually correctly identified the cyclist crossing the street and probably had time to stop, but it was disabled. You might say that if the Tesla driver died from trusting the system too much, the Uber fatality arose from trusting the system too little.
But you’d be wrong. The forward-facing radar in the Tesla should have prevented the accident by seeing the barrier and slamming on the brakes, but the Tesla algorithm places more weight on the cameras than the radar. Why? For exactly the same reason that the Uber emergency-braking system was turned off: there are “too many” false positives and the result is that far too often the cars brake needlessly under normal driving circumstances.
The crux of the self-driving at the moment is precisely figuring out when to slam on the brakes and when not. Brake too often, and the passengers are annoyed or the car gets rear-ended. Brake too infrequently, and the consequences can be worse. Indeed, this is the central problem of autonomous vehicle safety, and neither Tesla nor Uber have it figured out yet.
The Tesla Model 3 has been available for almost a year now, and hackers and tinkerers all over the world are eager to dig into Elon’s latest ride to see what makes it tick. But while it’s considerably cheaper than the Model S that came before it, the $35,000+ USD price tag on the new Tesla is still a bit too high to buy one just to take it apart. So for budget conscious grease monkeys, the only thing to do is wait until somebody with more money than you crashes one and then buy the wreckage cheaply.
Which is exactly what electric vehicle connoisseur [Jack Rickard] did. He bought the first wrecked Model 3 he could get his hands on, and proceeded to do a lengthy teardown on what’s arguably the heart and soul of the machine: its 75 kWh battery pack. Along the way he made some interesting discoveries, and gained some insight on to how Tesla has been able to drop the cost of the Model 3 so low compared to their previous vehicles.
On a Tesla, the battery pack is a large flat panel which takes up effectively the entire underside of the vehicle. To remove it, [Jack] and his assistant raise the wreck of the Model 3 up on a standard lift and then drop the battery down with a small lift table. Here the first differences are observed: while the Model S battery was made for rapid swapping (a feature apparently rarely utilized in practice), the battery in the Model 3 battery is obviously intended to be a permanent piece of the car; removing it required taking out a good portion of the interior.
With the battery out of the car and opened up, the biggest change for the Model 3 becomes apparent. The battery pack actually contains the charger, DC-DC converter, and battery management system in one integrated unit. Whereas on the Model S these components were installed in the vehicle itself, on the Model 3, most of the primary electronics are stored in this single module.
That greatly reduces the wiring and complexity of the car, and [Jack] mentions the only significant hardware left inside the Model 3 (beyond the motors) would be the user interface computer in the dashboard. When the communication protocol for this electronics module is reverse engineered, it may end up being exceptionally useful for not only electric vehicle conversions but things like off-grid energy storage.
What do you do when you find a 5 kW transmitting tube in your local electronics store? If you are [TannerTech], you build a vacuum tube tesla coil. This isn’t the usual little wimpy coil, but a big bad boy that would look at home in an old horror movie.
The first power up was a bit anticlimactic, although it was working, it wasn’t very spectacular other than the tube glowing brightly. A few adjustments and some mineral oil did the trick.
Self-driving cars have been in the news a lot in the past two weeks. Uber’s self-driving taxi hit and killed a pedestrian on March 18, and just a few days later a Tesla running in “autopilot” mode slammed into a road barrier at full speed, killing the driver. In both cases, there was a human driver who was supposed to be watching over the shoulder of the machine, but in the Uber case the driver appears to have been distracted and in the Tesla case, the driver had hands off the steering wheel for six seconds prior to the crash. How safe are self-driving cars?
Trick question! Neither of these cars were “self-driving” in at least one sense: both had a person behind the wheel who was ultimately responsible for piloting the vehicle. The Uber and Tesla driving systems aren’t even comparable. The Uber taxi does routing and planning, knows the speed limit, and should be able to see red traffic lights and stop at them (more on this below!). The Tesla “Autopilot” system is really just the combination of adaptive cruise control and lane-holding subsystems, which isn’t even enough to get it classified as autonomous in the state of California. Indeed, it’s a failure of the people behind the wheels, and the failure to properly train those people, that make the pilot-and-self-driving-car combination more dangerous than a human driver alone would be.
You could still imagine wanting to dig into the numbers for self-driving cars’ safety records, even though they’re heterogeneous and have people playing the mechanical turk. If you did, you’d be sorely disappointed. None of the manufacturers publish any of their data publicly when they don’t have to. Indeed, our glimpses into data on autonomous vehicles from these companies come from two sources: internal documents that get leaked to the press and carefully selected statistics from the firms’ PR departments. The state of California, which requires the most rigorous documentation of autonomous vehicles anywhere, is another source, but because Tesla’s car isn’t autonomous, and because Uber refused to admit that its car is autonomous to the California DMV, we have no extra insight into these two vehicle platforms.
Nonetheless, Tesla’s Autopilot has three fatalities now, and all have one thing in common — all three drivers trusted the lane-holding feature well enough to not take control of the wheel in the last few seconds of their lives. With Uber, there’s very little autonomous vehicle performance history, but there are leaked documents and a pattern that makes Uber look like a risk-taking scofflaw with sub-par technology that has a vested interest to make it look better than it is. That these vehicles are being let loose on public roads, without extra oversight and with other traffic participants as safety guinea pigs, is giving the self-driving car industry and ideal a black eye.
If Tesla’s and Uber’s car technologies are very dissimilar, the companies have something in common. They are both “disruptive” companies with mavericks at the helm that see their fates hinging on getting to a widespread deployment of self-driving technology. But what differentiates Uber and Tesla from Google and GM most is, ironically, their use of essentially untrained test pilots in their vehicles: Tesla’s in the form of consumers, and Uber’s in the form of taxi drivers with very little specific autonomous-vehicle training. What caused the Tesla and Uber accidents may have a lot more to do with human factors than self-driving technology per se.
You can see we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Read on!
Frankencars are built from the parts of several cars to make one usable vehicle. [Jim Belosic] has crossed the (finish) line with his Teslonda. In the most basic sense, it is the body of a Honda Accord on top of the drive train of a Tesla Model S. The 1981 Honda was the make and model of his first car, but it wasn’t getting driven. Rather than sell it, he decided to give it a new life with electricity, just like Victor Frankenstein.
In accord with Frankenstein’s monster, this car has unbelievable strength. [Jim] estimates the horsepower increases by a factor of ten over the gas engine. The California-emissions original generates between forty and fifty horsepower while his best guess places the horsepower over five-hundred. At this point, the Honda body is just holding on for dear life. Once all the safety items, like seatbelts, are installed, the driver and passengers will be holding on for the same reason.
This kind of build excites us because it takes something old, and something modern, and marries the two to make something in a class of its own. And we hate to see usable parts sitting idle.
We all know the saying: cheap, fast, or good — pick any two. That rule seems to apply across the spectrum of hackerdom, from software projects to hardware builds. But this DIY Tesla coil build might just manage to deliver on all three.
Cheap? [Jay Bowles]’ Tesla coil is based on a handheld bug zapper that you can find for a couple of bucks, or borrow from the top of the fridge in the relatively bug-free winter months. The spark gap is just a couple of screws set into scraps of nylon cutting board — nothing fancy there. Fast? Almost everything needed to build this is stuff lying around the house, and depending on the state of your junk bin you may not even have to order the polypropylene caps [Jay] recommends. Good? That’s a relative term, of course, and if you define it as a coil capable of putting out pumpkin-slaying lightning bolts or playing “Yakkity Sax”, you’ll likely be disappointed. But there’s no denying that this Tesla coil looks good, from its Lexan base to the door-pull top load. And running off a couple of AA batteries, it’s safe to use too.
[Jay] put a lot of care into winding and dressing the secondary coil neatly, and the whole thing would look great as a desktop toy. Not into the winding part? You can always etch a PCB Tesla coil instead.
A Tesla coil easily makes it to the top spot on our list of “Mad Scientist” equipment we want for the lab, second only to maybe a Jacob’s Ladder. Even then, it’s kind of unfair advantage because you know people only want a Jacob’s Ladder for that awesome sound it makes. Sound effects not withstanding, it’s Tesla coil all the way, no question.
Unfortunately, winding your own Tesla coil is kind of a hassle. Even on relatively small builds, you’ll generally need to setup some kind of winding jig just to do the secondary coil, which can be a project in itself. So when [Daniel Eindhoven] sent his no-wind Tesla coil into the tip line, it immediately got our attention.
The genius in his design is that the coils are actually etched into the PCB, completely taking the human effort out of the equation. Made up of 6 mil traces with 6 mil separation, the PCB coil manages to pack a 25 meter long, 160 turn coil into an incredibly compact package. As you might expect, such a tiny Tesla coil isn’t exactly going to be a powerhouse, and in fact [Daniel] has managed to get the entirely thing running on the 500 mA output of your standard USB 2.0 port.
In such a low-power setup, [Daniel] was also able to replace the traditional spark gap pulse generator with a PIC18F14K50 microcontroller, further simplifying the design. An advantage of using a microcontroller for the pulse generator is that it’s very easy to adjust the coil’s operating frequency, allowing for neat tricks like making the coil “sing” by bringing its frequency into the audible range.
For those looking to build their own version, [Daniel] has put the PCB schematic and firmware available for download on his site. He also mentions that, in collaboration with Elektor magazine, he will be producing a kit in the near future. Definitely something we’ll be keeping an eye out for.