Intelligent Machines

Tesla’s Biggest Edge in Chasing Autonomy Is Treating Drivers Like Guinea Pigs

If the Tesla Model 3 offers full autonomy, Elon Musk will be betting on his customers’ appetite for driving around with technology that’s still very much in beta testing.

If Tesla wins the race to commercialize automated driving, it might have less to do with some technological edge than its crazy customers.

At the unveiling of Tesla’s sleek and “affordable” new car, the Model 3, Musk hinted that some “next level” features had yet to be revealed. This has led some to speculate that the Model 3 might be the first car equipped to hit the road with full autonomy. As the New Yorker explains, Tesla has some unique technological advantages in pursuing autonomy. These include a focus on low-cost video sensing rather than the more expensive (and accurate) laser sensors used by Google and most carmakers, and a remarkable amount of data contributed from ordinary Tesla drivers. 

But there’s something else weighing heavily in Tesla’s favor: insanely devoted customers who seem to have a high tolerance for software updates that add experimental, and sometimes buggy, new features to their vehicles. I’ve lurked on Tesla message boards and interviewed a bunch of Tesla owners, and it’s amazing how tech savvy and enthusiastic they are.

In a Tesla, every drive is a test drive.

This could prove very important as Tesla continues to roll out automated driving, which still doesn’t work perfectly. Indeed, some Model S cars already come with Autopilot, a system that lets the car drive itself for extended periods, providing it’s equipped with the correct sensors. But Autopilot is very much a beta product, and it requires constant supervision. And yet Tesla drivers hardly seem bothered by that, with many proudly posting videos online of their experiences testing it. If a company like Ford had released Autopilot for Fiesta drivers, it’s hard to imagine they would have reacted the same way.

As cars become increasingly computerized and connected, it’ll be interesting to see how far Tesla can leverage its customers’ desire to be on the bleeding edge, no matter how hair-raising it seems.

(Read more: The New Yorker, 10 Breakthrough Technologies: Tesla Autopilot," "Driver’s Push Tesla’s Autopilot Beyond Its Abilities,” ”Some Tesla Drivers Pimp Their Rides with Code,” ”Rebooting the Automobile”)

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