Autonomous driving has been a popular buzzword for some time now, with many of the world’s biggest tech firms putting millions, if not billions, of dollars into its research and development. We, however, no longer have to just talk about it like it’s some far-off vision of the future because it’s finally here.
Tesla rolled out the latest version of its beta “full self-driving” software to thousands of its vehicles in October 2021. It’s the evolution of the Autopilot system launched a couple of years ago, which enables cars to drive themselves to a selected destination.
The question now is: Does it work? Well, it does work but whether we can say that the vehicle can be fully autonomous is still up for debate.
Going by CNN reporter Matt McFarland’s recent hands-on with the software, it still needs some work, with the vehicle unable to adjust to more complex traffic situations. "I'd watched the software nearly crash into a construction site, try to turn into a stopped truck and attempt to drive down the wrong side of the road," wrote McFarland.
“The Model 3's full self-driving needed plenty of human interventions to protect us and everyone else on the road.”
McFarland posted a video of his drive around New York in which the vehicle almost turned into oncoming traffic to supposedly avoid hitting a cargo bike in front of it. He pointed out how the software needed human intervention every couple of blocks just to avoid an accident on busy roads.
But he did also note that when the car is driving on a straight road with very few pedestrians, the software works as intended. It managed to avoid hitting anything while staying within the speed limit. This seemingly suggests that Tesla’s software does indeed work, but it’s not exactly at the level of our expectations – at least not yet.
Other Tesla drivers who received the new software in their vehicles also had similar experiences to McFarland. John Bernal, who owns a Tesla Model 3, told CNN, “I feel like I'm driving with my grandma.” There were also some who said the vehicle is prone to errors that newbie drivers might make, such as being slow to turn in four-way stops and driving in the parking lane of one-way streets, among other problems.
McFarland, in the video, concluded that the software is simply not ready for mass consumption yet. Tesla even conceded that drivers have to always be prepared to intervene when “full self-driving” is enabled. At its current state, you can say that the technology is still in an early phase of experimentation, where the experience is still being fine-tuned and inconsistencies are being ironed out.
Because if you think about it, there’s a lot of nuance in how humans drive that might prove difficult for artificial intelligence software to pick up on. Machines operate by recognising patterns and predicting outcomes. In our complex world where nothing is definite, it’ll obviously encounter challenges.
For example, human drivers communicate with pedestrians or other drivers using signals. The software isn’t capable of doing that yet, which can be a problem when, say, someone who suddenly has to cross the street flashes the stop sign.
Don’t get us wrong. We want autonomous driving technology to take off perhaps just as much as you do, but driverless transportation could only be beneficial if it's implemented effectively.
We say this because there has already been one accident related to self-driving cars in Singapore. In 2016, an autonomous taxi from Boston-based startup NuTonomy reportedly collided with a low-speed truck on the road. No one was hurt from the accident. And in October this year, a Tesla Model 3 made a right turn even though there was a car incoming and had the right of way, resulting in the incoming car T-boning the Model 3.
Despite these bumps in the road, autonomous driving shows a lot of promise, especially in Singapore, which has been hailed as a state destined for driverless vehicles. But as of right now, we’re not quite there yet. There are still safety concerns that have to be addressed and until then, it might be safer to for you to take full control of the wheel.