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Elon Musk's Self-Driving Tesla Car

Pioneering CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, is committed to the development of self-driving cars.

In 2012, there were 33,561 deaths from motor vehicle accidents. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, announced in 2015 that Tesla cars would handle 90 percent of driving within five years. This plan included all Tesla vehicles being equipped with an autopilot system. Musk compared Tesla's autopilot to the autopilot in airplanes, where people still manually control the vehicle in risky situations.

Tesla vehicles will use optical equipment and motion detection algorithms to warn drivers about dangerous situations. Every Tesla car will be equipped with an Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS). The device can recognize cars, motorcycles, and trucks, whether it is day or night. Tesla's ADAS will not eliminate the need for human drivers but it may make driving safer. The autopilot feature will be able to take over during highway driving, but ADAS will request the driver resume control when approaching an exit ramp.

These were the plans that Musk laid out for Tesla in 2015, and as of late 2015 all Tesla cars included an autopilot feature. Tesla uses moments in which humans need to take over the autopilot to create “teachable moments” and improve the program. Owners have commented on the system’s ability to self-improve and are generally impressed with the feature. All data that the cars learn from drivers is compiled into Tesla’s “fleet learning network,” so that all cars have access to the improvement.

Model S Tesla cars produced in 2015 come with traffic aware cruise control and a 360 degree closeness warning for those vehicles that were built with the new hardware. The closeness warning notifies the driver when the car comes too close to an object. The cruise control feature allows the driver to set a max speed and a distance tolerance and the car will slow/speed itself while remaining aware of other traffic in the vicinity. The feature is not able to detect traffic signals, so it is only effective at lights or stop signs if there is a car stopping in front of you. These features function well in good weather and in light rain, but become less accurate in heavy rain or snow.

Now that the autopilot feature is rolled out and improving itself on a regular basis, Tesla has set a bigger and far more ambitious goal for itself. By 2018, Elon Musk predicts that the company will have created a car that can drive without a driver. In fact, the goal is to have a car that can be summoned to the driver and reach its destination entirely unaccompanied by a human. The first round of the Summon program will allow the car to park itself after the driver has exited the car. It can also go as far as opening your garage door and shutting itself off after parking. However, Tesla plans to go much further than that, stating in a blog post, “Eventually, your Tesla will be able to drive anywhere across the country to meet you, charging itself along the way. It will synch with your calendar to know exactly when to arrive.” This opens the door for automated taxi systems that can meet customers wherever they are whenever they need them.

In late January of 2016, Tesla took steps in their hiring to ensure that the goal of a self-driving car could be met by the 2018 expectation set by Musk. The company confirmed hiring processor design veteran Jim Keller to lead its Autopilot hardware engineering team. Jim Keller is responsible for some of AMD's key architectures, including the Athlon K7 and the upcoming Zen, and helped make Apple's A4 and A5 chips, which powered everything from the original iPad through to the Apple TV. Musk does not seem phased at the idea of rolling out autonomous cars by 2018. “We have all the pieces, and it's just about refining those pieces, putting them in place, and making sure they work across a huge number of environments-and then we're done," said Musk. "It's a much easier problem than people think it is. But it's not like George Hotz, a one-guy-and-three-months problem. You know, it's more like, thousands of people for two years.”

Musk makes it clear that, due to Department of Transportation recommendations, drivers will be advised to remain in the car with their hands on the wheel in the early iterations of this technology. However, he sees this only as beta testing, stating, "We tell drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case, to exercise caution in the beginning. Over time, long term, you won't have to keep your hands on the wheel-we explicitly describe this as beta."

Mercedes-Benz and Volvo have also shown off their own limited autopilot vehicles. In fact, a laser scanner mounted behind the rear-view mirror will become standard on every Volvo vehicle by 2017. A forward-looking camera will scan for objects in front of the vehicle. Strategically placed sonar emitters detect other vehicles, pedestrians, and objects which may pose a threat to the vehicle. Two GPS discs on the roof and a RADAR system housed in the front detect danger and tell the car where it is. The Volvo prototype vehicle is packed with electronics but it looks like a normal sedan.

Unlike the 2015 Tesla cars, which pilot in safe conditions and defer to human judgement in hazardous conditions, the Volvo autopilot car will take over driving when it senses danger. Anders Eugensson, Volvo's director of government affairs, said "the car assists the driver, warns the driver, and then automatically brakes and steers away." Volvo is working with the Swedish government to research how autopilot cars operate on public roads in the largest study of its kind.

Nicknamed INTELLIGENT DRIVE, the Mercedes-Benz autopilot car can follow the vehicle in front of itself at speeds of 37mph or less. It can safely navigate traffic lights, roundabouts, and pedestrians. It will apply more force to breaking power when the driver fails to break hard enough. The vehicle will prevent drivers from radically swerving their car into other lanes.

Autonomous vehicles will drive themselves without the need for a driver to touch the steering wheel. Car companies are developing autopilot systems to make vehicles safer, but autopilot should not be confused with autonomous vehicles. Google has been developing their autonomous car in the Nevada desert since the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. For now, the self-driving car is far from perfect.

The programming in Google's Self-Driving Cars cannot always determine how to react, so the vehicle stops moving or relinquishes control to the driver. Before Google Cars can drive, researchers must create a detailed map of their route. Researchers have to account for all road markings, including driveways, stoplights, and road signs. Complex situations, like four-way stop signs, force the autonomous vehicle to drive cautiously as it tries to determine what rules to follow. Google Self-Driving Cars may be available sooner than expected because they have safely driven more than 700,000 miles. 

Elon Musk, born in 1971, was a product of the 1980's culture. Perhaps his macro vision of the automotive industry entering a new era was inspired by late 20th century sci-fi films like Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1990 hit Total Recall or Sylvester Stallone's 1993 classic Demolition Man. A look at the list of movies with self driving cars may give further insight into future technology.

Minority Report by Steven Spielberg

The futuristic feel of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report wouldn’t be complete without a self-driving car. This movie portrays life in Washington set in a far future where crimes can be predicted before they actually occur. It comes as no surprise that adding a detail of a self-driving car is really important for the entire atmosphere. The vehicles in Minority Report are imagined and designed by Lexus. They really nailed the look and the cars are very fitting for the year 2054.

The highways in this film are another novelty. Basically, you are supposed to input the destination and simply relax while a self-driving car takes you there. However, this wouldn’t be a standard Tom Cruz movie if he didn’t hijack the car and engage in a wild car chase with the police. Therefore, the cars in this movie can be operated manually as well. We really enjoyed this version of an automotive future because the design is superb and it seems that the passengers are experiencing a really comfortable ride in them (except for Tom Cruz who is a fugitive from the law, of course). The highways are a bit strange since they are sometimes vertical but it seems that nobody really minds traveling vertically.

I, Robot by Alex Proyas

Alex Proyas' I, Robot is another movie that uses the idea of custom made highways assigned to self-driving cars only. Traveling from one place to another has never been easier since the cars are operating on their own and they are allowed to reach high speeds. The focus of this movie is clearly on artificial intelligence; so traveling under these circumstances is safe. Audi’s design team was assigned with the task of imagining and creating the cars in this movie and they did an excellent job. As a matter of fact, these might be the most beautiful cars on our list. The look is very Audi with soft lines, but they still have the amazingly cutting edge feel.

As the movie progresses, Will Smith shows us that these cars are capable of being operated manually as well. I, Robot is set in 2035 (which is almost around the corner!) Seeing this technology in real life is still far-fetched because we can build an amazing and elegant self-driving car, but we will still lack the highways for high speed traveling reserved for smart cars only. All in all, the concept of an artificial intelligence doing the driving for us is really attractive.

Total Recall by Paul Verhoeven

Is there any way to forget one of the most memorable scenes from this excellent science-fiction movie when Arnold Schwarzenegger jumps into a Johnny Cab and orders him to immediately start driving...but he refuses because Arnie needs to give him the actual destination? Clearly agitated, Arnold attacks the robot driver and starts driving the cab himself. Johnny Cab is slightly different from the other cars on our list since it actually has a personification of the software that is driving this vehicle in the form of a dummy.

The look of this movie is slightly rugged, dystopian, and a bit dusty since it is set on Mars after the human colonization of that planet, so the design of the Johnny Cab is not exceptional or sleek. It is supposed to serve the purpose of transporting the passengers and that is it. However, it fits the settings well. The robotic torso gives passenger a feeling of riding in a real cab back on Earth since it engages in the conversations. It is also important to point out that Johnny Cab apparently has his own will and he can get angry - he tries to run over Arnold in one scene. 

Demolition Man by Marco Brambilla

Marco Brambilla's Demolition Man is another action packed movie on our list with two of the biggest movie stars in the world today. Sandra Bullock and Sylvester Stallone are the main protagonists of Demolition Man and they play cops who are driven around in a self-driving car. What we absolutely love about this interesting looking vehicle is the fact that it has a shrinkable steering wheel that goes to the full size once you decide to drive the car manually. With a communication screen right there in front of the driver and several additional ones on the dashboard, he or she is able to communicate with other people without any distractions while the car is taking them to a desired destination.

Surely, the safety is on point in this version of the future. If the car crashes, the entire interior is willed with so-called secure foam that is an advanced version of airbags we are using today. A driver is able to give instructions to the car by using his or hers voice. We must add that this car sort of reminds us of the Google Car and perhaps it served as an inspiration to the team that is working on it. The design is actually quite nice and we wouldn’t mind seeing this type of car in the real word. 

Batman by Tim Burton

Even though Batmobile doesn’t have an artificial intelligence running the vehicle, it is still considered to be a self-driving car operating on some sort of software. After all, it is capable of picking up Batman when he gets into a trouble and needs a getaway car. And it has some pretty cool features that often transform the car into a weapon itself (and it can be remotely operated). Not to forget that it is drivable on all surfaces and can even climbs walls. The design of the Batmobile changed over the years; but the general feeling of a futuristic and technologically advanced car that is capable of anything remained.

The modern Batmobile was featured in Tim Burton’s Batman which was the first time that the audience saw Batman’s vehicle operating on its own. Batman Begins and the Nolan’s trilogy elevated the Batmobile to a whole new level, with both the look and functionalities. Every single Batmobile has unique features and I am sure that many of us would love to take a spin in one of them. The gadgets and the tech presented in Batmobile are very real and the chances are we will be seeing something similar on our roads in a couple of years or so.

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