Within the next year or so, Elon Musk says Tesla cars will be able to drive themselves from California to New York without any human interaction.
But Tesla’s automated driving system, Autopilot, may not be as ready as Musk claims.
The latest critique of Tesla’s Autopilot platform comes from the analysts at Navigant. The research firm just released a report on the automated vehicle market, and it ranks Tesla last out of 19 companies.
“Tesla scores high for its vision, but they haven’t demonstrated the ability to consistently execute that vision,” explained Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst with Navigant Research and co-author of the report.
The report features a wide range of players in the automated vehicle market, including big auto companies like GM and Ford, internet giants like Google’s Waymo and Apple, and ride-hailing company Uber.
Navigant’s report describes Tesla’s Autopilot technology as “dubious” at best. The latest version of the system on its cars (Version 2) has both “stagnated” and “regressed since it was first launched in late 2015,” according to the report.
A major part of that regression comes from Tesla’s public split with its early partner Mobileye, an Israeli chip and software developer focused on computer vision tech. Mobileye was acquired by Intel for $15.3 billion well after the split with Tesla.
Tesla worked with Mobileye on the original Autopilot. But in the spring of 2016, a driver died in a Tesla car following an accident during which Autopilot was engaged. Tesla’s Autopilot was investigated, but later determined not to be at fault.
However, following the accident, Mobileye expressed safety concerns over how the Tesla Autopilot system was being used hands-free by Tesla customers. Musk accused Mobileye of trying to block Tesla’s attempts to build its own system.
After the split, Tesla released an enhanced version of Autopilot, which was twice as expensive as the original version, but promised more autonomy. Version 2 increased the camera count from one to eight, and increased its use of forward-facing radar and ultrasonic sensors.
But critics contend that the Version 2 system doesn’t work as well as the original. The Navigant report concludes: “More than one year after launching V2, Autopilot still lacks some of the functionality of the original and there are many anecdotal reports from owners of unpredictable behavior.”
A feature story published by Bloomberg late last year also concluded that Version 2 was inferior to the original: “[W]hile some aspects of Autopilot had improved by the time Bloomberg test-drove a Tesla in July, the overall experience still wasn’t as good as the original with Mobileye. Improvements have since brought it closer, but not all the way.”
Tesla also offers an $8,000 upgrade of Version 2 Autopilot to enable “full self-driving.” But, as the Navigant report points out, “There is no real indication of when or even if that capability will actually be available.”
A group of Tesla customers that bought the $8,000 upgrade filed a class-action lawsuit accusing Tesla of tricking them into buying a feature that doesn’t exist. The lawsuit refers to the self-driving upgrade as “vaporware.”
Some in the automated driving market think that Tesla’s choice to exclude lidar -- a laser-based mapping system -- from its Autopilot system was a mistake. The Navigant report notes that “most people in the field believe [lidar] is necessary for highly automated vehicles.”
In addition to lacking lidar, Tesla cars likely won’t be able to drive without human intervention, since they don’t have technology installed to keep cameras and sensors clean in inclement weather or a dusty environment, concludes Navigant.
“We’ve had [bad] winter weather up here in Michigan, and when that stuff gets kicked up onto radar sensors, those sensors can’t see and the system can’t function,” said Navigant’s Abuelsamid.
Tesla isn’t building in levels of hardware redundancy into Autopilot, said Abuelsamid. Many of the leading automated driving companies, like GM, are using backup computing platforms, opting for two or even three computing systems.
Navigant’s report gives high scores to GM, Daimler, Ford, Waymo and Volkswagen. The report even ranks Apple and Uber, which don’t have car manufacturing experience, higher than Tesla.
Tesla declined to comment on the rankings in the report.