By on May 10, 2013

He did other stuff too. Picture courtesy KinderTrauma

“Self-driving sounds like it’s going to do something you don’t want it to do. Autopilot is a good thing to have in planes, and we should have it in cars.”

According to Elon Musk, what we have here is… failure to market effectively.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, the man whose divorce rated a story on Jalopnik offered his opinions on the future of self-driving cars. The most notable talking points? First, Musk likes the idea of camera-based systems more than he likes a Google-style LIDAR scanning system. In a world where camera lenses never get dirty, this should work perfectly. In the real world, one suspects that the owner of said car will have to intervene fairly often. Better not turn away from the road while you’re reading the tenth book in the “50 Shades” series, ladies.

But that’s okay, because Musk doesn’t like the idea of a “self-driving” car. Better to call it “autopilot”, as noted in the above quote. Here, he has a genuine point. The early self-driving cars will almost certainly be incapable of operating effectively in mixed conditions without frequent and occasionally immediate assistance from the tool behind the wheel. If you look at these systems as “autopilots” — that is, something you use like cruise control in limited situations while remaining at least partially aware of what’s happening — rather than “self-driving” — which implies you can take a nap on the way to work — it makes more sense.

The problem comes when autopilot-level cars have to co-exist with an ever more ridiculous set of rules on distracted driving. What will the owner of the “autopiloted” car be permitted to do? Will he be forced by law to look forward and simply watch the wheels go round and round, just in case something happens that the car can’t handle? Can you imagine being forced to watch a car drive itself from Indianapolis to St. Louis? We’ll need the Clockwork Orange eyelid-grabbers for that, methinks. Or maybe you should just stop thinking about it and participate in mass transit. The government would prefer that, and if there’s no mass transit where you live, that’s a clue that you should leave, right?

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25 Comments on “Elon Musk: Let’s Use The Term “Autopilot”...”


  • avatar
    car_guy2010

    The bean counters at GM would love to stick a dummy behind the wheel of a Cruze and call it a day.

    But they could save time and money and just buy actual dummies. ;-)

  • avatar
    juicy sushi

    This Elon Musk is too smart by half. His idea might just work for the masses.

  • avatar
    photog02

    “If you look at these systems as “autopilots” — that is, something you use like cruise control in limited situations while remaining at least partially aware of what’s happening — rather than “self-driving” — which implies you can take a nap on the way to work — it makes more sense.”

    Then it makes even less sense. The further removed humans becomes from a task, the less incentive they have to stay engaged in it. Further, once you have a driver no longer actively participating behind the wheel, it raises a question of how often will they respond correctly when an urgent situation demands it.

    • 0 avatar
      CamryStang

      Yeah planes that practically fly themselves on autopilot are so dangerous good thing they never caught on…

      Admittedly, there are more hurdles for autopilot (autodrive?) cars than planes (more traffic for one) but I think the autopilot analogy is a good one.

      I’m honestly a little shocked nobody thought of it already.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      >> Further, once you have a driver no longer actively participating behind the wheel, it raises a question of how often will they respond correctly when an urgent situation demands it.

      This is a real concern. Air France Flight 447 dived and crash. It had 3 pilots on board; the most experienced one was on his sleep shift, leaving 2 pilots up front, along with auto-pilot. An emergency occurred, auto-pilot was disengaged, and the junior pilot kept the nose up, stalling the plane. He should have dived to pick up speed. Details at Popular Mechanics:

      http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/aviation/crashes/what-really-happened-aboard-air-france-447-6611877

  • avatar
    mcs

    A LIDAR based system alone would never work. Several reasons. One problem is that a car isn’t always going to be able to stop in time when a LIDAR system detects a potential collision. So, just like a human, an autonomous car will have to be able to anticipate problems and understand situations that require it to slow down and be cautious. You can’t do that with LIDAR alone. I have co-developed a couple of aviation collision avoidance systems and participated in one of the more recent DARPA Challenges, so I have plenty of real experience in building these types of systems.

    • 0 avatar
      wmba

      Over the years here on TTAC, I have relied on your opinions regarding self-driving cars, simply because you’re the only commenter who seems to know what he’s talking about based on actual experience.

      Just wanted you to know that some people appreciate your opinion. How about an article summarizing the state of the art, beginning with your aviation work? I’d be interested.

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      So then you’re aware that self-driving vehicles are already here, right?

      The Google cars are just the passenger front, the commercial apps are coming much fasterer and furiouser. That Rio Tinto already has 3 mines using driverless vehicles and more will be deployed every day?

      Which “recent” DARPA challenge are you talking about? The “Grand Challenge” was won (completed) back in 2005. And the “Urban Challenge” was also won back in 2007 (and completed by 6 teams). And the “Robotics Challenge” doesn’t even happen till June.

      Not to mention the fact that it’s always an integrated suite that wins, talking about standalone LIDAR is a bit of well, it says you are apparently unaware of MB’s work from the 1980s. Or Prometheus. Darpa’s last foray into LIDAR solo was the ALV project – also in the 80s.

      I’ve not participated, but I’ve actually interfaced with people who have. So I’m pretty familiar too.

  • avatar
    E46M3_333

    This will never happen in our litigious society. Too much liability risk for the auto maker.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Really. Didn’t TTAC highlight that lawsuit by the woman who put her mobile home on cruise control and then went back to make a sandwich, only for the mobile home to drive into a ditch? She sued Ford and won! Just imagine the payoff for electronics that malfunction.

      • 0 avatar
        WheelMcCoy

        >>..the woman who put her mobile home on cruise control and then went back to make a sandwich,

        I am heartened to learn that this is urban legend. See snopes:

        http://www.snopes.com/autos/techno/cruise.asp

        This means the masses might not be a dumb as they are made out to be.

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      >> This will never happen in our litigious society. Too much liability risk for the auto maker.

      Just speculating here, but perhaps auto-pilot could start small, on designated highways and commuter corridors. There would need to be safe zone where passengers transition to drivers and back. And emergency stopping / parking areas for the auto-pilot should the passenger not wake up from his nap (or died).

      Of course your are right about our litigious society, so when merging onto this auto-pilot corridor, there will be road signs saying “use at your own risk” and a disclaimer will also pop up on your car’s display. Of course TTAC readers prefer to drive and would never use such corridors, and consequently, insurance companies might see us as the lower risk drivers and our rates will go down!

      I’m half serious, half joking, but I’m sure someone is thinking of infrastructure, logistics, deployment, and finance. Security will be an afterthought. :)

    • 0 avatar
      Yupa

      Suppose that the auto maker ends up being liable for all accidents in a self-driving car. So what? They build that cost (plus some nice markup) into the cost of the car. The rental companies figured out this model a long time ago.

  • avatar
    Trail Rated

    You guys pick the best pictures!

  • avatar
    CelticPete

    Musk is correct of course – I just resent the idea that Musk is coming up with this new idea. Audi has been working on a sytem like this for a while now.

    So yes absolutely we will transition to self driving from a very advanced kind of cruise control (which we already have). What this will do is boost car sales and traffic – which is fine with the automakers.

    2020 – expect the very advanced cruise control (highway driving) system to be out and about. And in another 20 years will will transistion to full self driving.

    I think we are going to see a ton more cars on the road. Its not going to be a real win for the consumers. Like the other advances (rear camera, auto transmision) It allows more people to drive who otherwise could not.

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      Benz has been at this for around 30 years. The Japanese have been at it for 40.

      CAT sells driverless heavy (and I mean HEAVY) equipment right effen now. And it’s in use in mines around the world.

      • 0 avatar
        carrya1911

        …in highly controlled environments. Factories use autonomous robots to ferry parts from station to station as well…but that, too, is a highly controlled environment.

        The roads aren’t a highly controlled environment. They’re pretty much the exact opposite of a highly controlled environment.

        I’m mot sure how well their tech would do if turned loose on the road.

        • 0 avatar
          porschespeed

          To use the current well-known example, I’m not quite sure how CA roads, especially in the Bay Area qualify as “controlled” for the Google cars.

          The Benz was out in real streets in 1994 with heavy traffic doing 600+ miles around Paris.

          In 1995, they went even farther.

  • avatar
    Robstar

    I can’t wait to see TTAC messageboards 20 (more? years) from now about the difference between a “manual” and an “auto”

    Manual = manual control over car functions
    auto = autopilot….

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I’m a Musk fan, but this is crazy talk. Americans hate mass transit, love independence, and will not tolerate autopilots in cars.


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