Tesla’s Smart Summon – Gimmick Or Greatness?

Tesla have always aimed to position themselves as part automaker, part tech company. Their unique offering is that their vehicles feature cutting-edge technology not available from their market rivals. The company has long touted it’s “full self-driving” technology, and regular software updates have progressively unlocked new functionality in their cars over the years.

The latest “V10” update brought a new feature to the fore – known as Smart Summon. Allowing the driver to summon their car remotely from across a car park, this feature promises to be of great help on rainy days and when carrying heavy loads. Of course, the gulf between promises and reality can sometimes be a yawning chasm.

How Does It Work?

Holding the “Come To Me” button summons the vehicle to the user’s location. Releasing the button stops the car immediately.

Smart Summon is activated through the Tesla smartphone app. Users are instructed to check the vehicle’s surroundings and ensure they have line of sight to the vehicle when using the feature. This is combined with a 200 foot (61 m) hard limit, meaning that Smart Summon won’t deliver your car from the back end of a crowded mall carpark. Instead, it’s more suited to smaller parking areas with clear sightlines.

Once activated, the car will back out of its parking space, and begin to crawl towards the user. As the user holds down the button, the car moves, and will stop instantly when let go. Using its suite of sensors to detect pedestrians and other obstacles, the vehicle is touted to be able to navigate the average parking environment and pick up its owners with ease.

No Plan Survives First Contact With The Enemy

With updates rolled out over the air, Tesla owners jumped at the chance to try out this new functionality. Almost immediately, a cavalcade of videos began appearing online of the technology. Many of these show that things rarely work as well in the field as they do in the lab.

As any driver knows, body language and communication are key to navigating a busy parking area. Whether it’s a polite nod, an instructional wave, or simply direct eye contact, humans have become well-rehearsed at self-managing the flow of traffic in parking areas. When several cars are trying to navigate the area at once, a confused human can negotiate with others to take turns to exit the jam. Unfortunately, a driverless car lacks all of these abilities.

This situation proved all too much for the Tesla, and the owner was forced to intervene.

A great example is this drone video of a Model 3 owner attempting a Smart Summon in a small linear carpark. Conditions are close to ideal – a sunny day, with little traffic, and a handful of well-behaved pedestrians. In the first attempt, the hesitation of the vehicle is readily apparent. After backing out of the space, the car simply remains motionless, as two human drivers are also attempting to navigate the area. After backing up further, the Model 3 again begins to inch forward, with seemingly little ability to choose between driving on the left or the right. Spotting the increasing frustration of the other road users, the owner is forced to walk to the car and take over. In a second attempt, the car is again flummoxed by an approaching car, and simply grinds to a halt, unable to continue. Communication between autonomous vehicles and humans is an active topic of research, and likely one that will need to be solved sooner rather than later to truly advance this technology.

Pulling straight out of a wide garage onto an empty driveway is a corner case they haven’t quite mastered yet.

An expensive repair bill, courtesy of Smart Summon.

Other drivers have had worse experiences. One owner had their Tesla drive straight into the wall of their garage, an embarrassing mistake even most learner drivers wouldn’t make. Another had a scary near miss, when the Telsa seemingly failed to understand its lack of right of way. The human operator can be seen to recognise an SUV approaching at speed from the vehicle’s left, but the Tesla fails to yield, only stopping at the very last minute. It’s likely that the Smart Summon software doesn’t have the ability to understand right of way in parking environments, where signage is minimal and it’s largely left up to human intuition to figure out.

This is one reason why the line of sight requirement is key – had the user let go of the button when first noticing the approaching vehicle, the incident would have been avoided entirely. Much like other self-driving technologies, it’s not always clear how much responsibility still lies with the human in the loop, which can have dire results. And more to the point, how much responsibility should the user have, when he or she can’t know what the car is going to decide to do?

More amusingly, an Arizona man was caught chasing down a Tesla Model 3 in Phoenix, seeing the vehicle rolling through the carpark without a driver behind the wheel. While the embarassing incident ended without injury, it goes to show that until familiarity with this technology spreads, there’s a scope for misunderstandings to cause problems.

It’s Not All Bad, Though

Some users have had more luck with the feature. While it’s primarily intended to summon the car to the user’s GPS location, it can also be used to direct the car to a point within a 200 foot radius. In this video, a Tesla can be seen successfully navigating around a sparsely populated carpark, albeit with some trepidation. The vehicle appears to have difficulty initially understanding the structure of the area, first attempting a direct route before properly making its way around the curbed grass area. The progress is more akin to a basic line-following robot than an advanced robotic vehicle. However, it does successfully avoid running down its owner, who attempts walking in front of the moving vehicle to test its collision avoidance abilities. If you value your limbs, probably don’t try this at home.

No, not like that!

Wanting to explore a variety of straightforward and oddball situations, [DirtyTesla] decided to give the tech a rundown himself. The first run in a quiet carpark is successful, albeit with the car weaving, reversing unnecessarily, and ignoring a stop sign. Later runs are more confident, with the car clearly choosing the correct lane to drive in, and stopping to check for cross traffic. Testing on a gravel driveway was also positive, with the car properly recognising the grass boundaries and driving around them. That is, until the fourth attempt, when the car gently runs off the road and comes to a stop in the weeds. Further tests show that dark conditions and heavy rain aren’t a show stopper for the system, but it’s still definitely imperfect in operation.

Reality Check

Fundamentally, there’s plenty of examples out there that suggest this technology isn’t ready for prime-time. Unlike other driver-in-the-loop aids, like parallel parking assists, it appears that users put a lot more confidence in the ability of Smart Summon to detect obstacles on its own, leading to many near misses and collisions.

If all it takes is a user holding a button down to drive a 4000 pound vehicle into a wall, perhaps this isn’t the way to go. It draws parallels to users falling asleep on the highway when using Tesla’s AutoPilot – drivers are putting ultimate trust in a system that is, at best, only capable when used in combination with a human’s careful oversight. But even then, how is the user supposed to know what the car sees? Tesla’s tools seem to have a way of lulling users into a false sense of confidence, only to be betrayed almost instantly to the delight of Youtube viewers around the world.

While it’s impossible to make anything truly foolproof, it would appear that Tesla has a ways to go to get Smart Summon up to scratch. Combine this with the fact that in 90% of videos, it would have been far quicker for an able-bodied driver to simply walk to the vehicle and drive themselves, and it definitely appears to be more of a gimmick than a useful feature. If it can be improved, and limitations such as line-of-sight and distance can be negated, it will quickly become a must-have item on luxury vehicles. That may yet be some years away, however. Watch this space, as it’s unlikely other automakers will rest for long!

A Car Phone — No, Not That Kind

Autonomous vehicle development is a field of technology that remains relatively elusive to the average hacker, what with the needing a whole car and all. Instead of having to deal with such a large scale challenge, [Piotr Sokólski] has instead turned to implementing the same principles on the scale of a small radio-controlled car.

Wanting to lower the barrier of entry for developing software for self-driving cars, he based his design off of something you’re likely to have lying around already: a smartphone. He cites the Google Cardboard project for his inspiration, with how it made VR more accessible without needing expensive hardware. The phone is able to control the actuators and wheel motors through a custom board, which it talks to via a Bluetooth connection. And since the camera points up in the way the phone is mounted in the frame, [Piotr] came up with a really clever solution of using a mirror as a periscope so the car can see in front of itself.

The software here has two parts, though the phone app one does little more than just serve as an interface by sending off a video feed to be processed. The whole computer vision processing is done on the desktop part, and it allows [Piotr] to do some fun things like using reinforcement learning to keep the car driving as long as possible without crashing. This is achieved by making the algorithm observe the images coming from the phone and giving it negative reward whenever an accelerometer detects a collision. Another experiment he’s done is use a QR tag on top of the car, visible to a fixed overhead camera, to determine the car’s position in the room.

This might not be the first time someone’s made a scaled down model of a self-driving vehicle, though it’s one of the most cleverly-designed ones, and it’s certainly much simpler than trying to do it on a full-sized car in your garage.

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Was The Self Driving Car Invented In The 1980s?

The news is full of self-driving cars and while there is some bad news, most of it is pretty positive. It seems a foregone conclusion that it is just a matter of time before calling for an Uber doesn’t involve another person. But according to a recent article, [Ernst Dickmanns] — a German aerospace engineer —  built three autonomous vehicles starting in 1986 and culminating with on-the-road demonstrations in 1994 for Daimler.

It is hard to imagine what had to take place to get a self-driving car in 1986. The article asserts that you need computer analysis of video at 10 frames a second minimum. In the 1980s doing a single frame in 10 minutes was considered an accomplishment. [Dickmanns’] vehicles borrowed tricks from how humans drive. They focused on a small area at any one moment and tried to ignore things that were not relevant.

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Uber Has An Autonomous Fatality

You have doubtlessly heard the news. A robotic Uber car in Arizona struck and killed [Elaine Herzberg] as she crossed the street. Details are sketchy, but preliminary reports indicate that the accident was unavoidable as the woman crossed the street suddenly from the shadows at night.

If and when more technical details emerge, we’ll cover them. But you can bet this is going to spark a lot of conversation about autonomous vehicles. Given that Hackaday readers are at the top of the technical ladder, it is likely that your thoughts on the matter will influence your friends, coworkers, and even your politicians. So what do you think?

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Go Big Or Go Home – This Arduino RC Car Can Take You There

Whether we like it or not, eventually the day will come where we have to admit that we outgrew our childhood toys — unless, of course, we tech them up in the name of science. And in some cases we might get away with simply scaling things up to be more fitting for an adult size. [kenmacken] demonstrates how to do both, by building himself a full-size 1:1 RC car. No, we didn’t forget a digit here, he remodeled an actual Honda Civic into a radio controlled car, and documented every step along the way, hoping to inspire and guide others to follow in his footsteps.

To control the Civic with a standard RC transmitter, [kenmacken] equipped it with a high torque servo, some linear actuators, and an electronic power steering module to handle all the mechanical aspects for acceleration, breaking, gear selection, and steering. At the center of it all is a regular, off-the-shelf Arduino Uno. His write-up features plenty of videos demonstrating each single component, and of course, him controlling the car — which you will also find after the break.

[kenmacken]’s ultimate goal is to eventually remove the radio control to build a fully autonomous self-driving car, and you can see some initial experimenting with GPS waypoint driving at the end of his tutorial. We have seen the same concept in a regular RC car before, and we have also seen it taken further using neural networks. Considering his background in computer vision, it will be interesting to find out which path [kenmacken] will go here in the future.

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Skynet Will Have Bobcats

There are so many autonomous devices nowadays that can run Skynet Inside(TM) that it’s hard to keep track. But one was still missing: the versatile Bobcat. When we say “Bobcat”, we mean track loader — it’s just one of those things that the name and the brand stoke together so strongly that it’s hard to actually recall the technical name. A company by the name of Built Robotics is betting on autonomous track loaders as being a big part of the future of construction.

The tractor can navigate, excavate, and carry a 1,000 pound load with 1 cm precision using its LIDAR, specially designed to work with high-vibration, high-impact environment of construction excavation. Additionally, the lasers also allow the robot to measure the amount of material it has scooped up. But the precision does not come from the LIDAR alone. To position the robot, Built Robotics uses augmented GPS, which combines an on-site base station and GPS satellites to produce accurate location data.

It is supposed to be completely autonomous: given a location and holes to dig, it can plan and execute the work. It resembles a self-driving car, but the challenges are actually quite different. Cars are mean to drive around and reach a destination without touching anything. Like the CEO of Built Robotics says:

“If a car is changing the environment around it, then something’s gone really wrong.”

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Self-Driving RC Cars With TensorFlow; Raspberry Pi Or MacBook Onboard

You might think that you do not have what it takes to build a self-driving car, but you’re wrong. The mistake you’ve made is assuming that you’ll be controlling a two-ton death machine. Instead, you can give it a shot without the danger and on a relatively light budget. [Otavio] and [Will] got into self-driving vehicles using radio controlled (RC) cars.

[Otavio] slapped a MacBook Pro on an RC car to do the heavy lifting and called it carputer. The computer reads Hall effect sensor data from the motor to establish distance traveled (this can be used to calculate speed) and watches the stream from a webcam perched on the chassis. These two sources are fed into a neural network using TensorFlow. You train the system by driving the vehicle manually through the course a few times and then let it drive itself.

In the video interview below, you get a look at the car and [Otavio] gives commentary on how the system works as we see playback of a few races, including the Sparkfun 2016 Autonomous Vehicle Competition. I apologize for the poor audio, they lost the booth lottery and were next door to an incredibly noisy robot band (video proof) so we were basically shouting at each other. But I think you’ll agree it’s worth it to get a look at the races. Continue reading “Self-Driving RC Cars With TensorFlow; Raspberry Pi Or MacBook Onboard”