Bluster around the advent of self-driving cars has become a constant in the automotive world in recent years. Much is promised by all comers, but real-world results – and customer-ready technologies – remain scarce on the street.
Today, we’ll dive in and take a look at the current state of play. What makes a self-driving car, how close are the main players, and what can we expect to come around the corner?
The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a formal investigation about Tesla’s automatic driving features (PDF), claiming to have identified 11 accidents that are of concern. In particular, they are looking at the feature Tesla calls “Autopilot” or traffic-aware cruise control” while approaching stopped responder vehicles like fire trucks or ambulances. According to the statement from NHTSA, most of the cases were at night and also involved warning devices such as cones, flashing lights, or a sign with an arrow that, you would presume, would have made a human driver cautious.
There are no details about the severity of those accidents. In the events being studied, the NHTSA reports that vehicles using the traffic-aware cruise control “encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved with those scenes.”
Despite how they have marketed the features, Tesla will tell you that none of their vehicles are truly self-driving and that the driver must maintain control. That’s assuming a lot, even if you ignore the fact that some Tesla owners have gone to great lengths to bypass the need to have a driver in control. Tesla has promised full automation for driving and is testing that feature, but as of the time of writing the company still indicates active driver supervision is necessary when using existing “Full Self-Driving” features.
We’ve talked a lot about self-driving car safety in the past. We’ve also covered some of the more public accidents we’ve heard about. What do you think? Are self-driving cars as close to reality as they’d like you to believe? Let us know what you think in the comments.
There comes a moment when our project sees the light of day, publicly presented to people who are curious to see the results of all our hard work, only for it to fail in a spectacularly embarrassing way. This is the dreaded “Demo Curse” and it recently befell the SIT Acronis Autonomous team. Their Roborace car gained social media infamy as it was seen launching off the starting line and immediately into a wall. A team member explained what happened.
A few explanations had started circulating, but only in the vague terms of a “steering lock” without much technical detail until this emerged. Steering lock? You mean like The Club? Well, sort of. While there was no steering wheel immobilization steel bar on the car, a software equivalent did take hold within the car’s systems. During initialization, while a human driver was at the controls, one of the modules sent out NaN (Not a Number) instead of a valid numeric value. This was never seen in testing, and it wreaked havoc at the worst possible time.
A module whose job was to ensure numbers stay within expected bounds said “not a number, not my problem!” That NaN value propagated through to the vehicle’s CAN data bus, which didn’t define the handling of NaN so it was arbitrarily translated into a very large number causing further problems. This cascade of events resulted in a steering control system locked to full right before the algorithm was given permission to start driving. It desperately tried to steer the car back on course, without effect, for the few short seconds until it met the wall.
While embarrassing and not the kind of publicity the Schaffhausen Institute of Technology or their sponsor Acronis was hoping for, the team dug through logs to understand what happened and taught their car to handle NaN properly. Driving a backup car, round two went very well and the team took second place. So they had a happy ending after all. Congratulations! We’re very happy this problem was found and fixed on a closed track and not on public roads.
The new software update further extends the capabilities of Tesla vehicles to drive semi-autonomously. Despite the boastful “Full Self Driving” moniker, or FSD for short, it’s still classified as a Level 2 driving automation system, which relies on human intervention as a backup. This means that the driver must be paying attention and ready to take over in an instant, at all times. Users are instructed to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, but predictably, videos have already surfaced of users ignoring this measure.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.