27 Jan
Autopilot is normally a technology reserved for the skies, but Tesla has brought it to the road.

Running on autopilot: Is the self-driving car already here?

Autopilot is a concept typically reserved for the world of aviation. While there's someone needed in the cockpit for takeoffs and landings, once the aircraft reaches cruising altitude, the technology-based systems take care of everything with minimal input.

While the innovation works in the skies, could it soon be applied to the roads? Well, that's what electric vehicle pioneer Tesla is hoping to achieve with its latest generation of self-driving tech. The company's most prominent vehicle – the Model S – has a mixture of hardware and software that essentially allows the car to control itself once up to speed.

Radar-guided cruise control and other systems are no new things, but Tesla's real step forward is the fact that its Model S can now control speeds, avoid obstacles and – crucially – change lanes of its own accord. The tech working in practice can seen in this video from Jalopnik:

Digital control

So, while a world of autonomous, self-driving cars could soon be upon us, how has Tesla turned its idea into a reality? Well, the short answer, is through computing power. Its integrated autopilot system uses an array of complex technologies to allow for autonomous control, the four most prominent being:

  • Cameras
  • Radar
  • Ultrasonics
  • Global positioning systems

When working together, the individual sensors give the Model S 'eyes', make it aware of traffic, road conditions and pedestrians, and ultimately hand control of the car over to digital systems. Perhaps the best feature is the fact that this isn't some sort of optional extra with an otherworldly price tag attached.

As Tesla has made it its mission to get more self-driving solutions into the mainstream, the company is making the latest innovation available for free. Owners of the applicable Model S simply have to download the latest version of the car's software.

A learning network

Rather than rest on its laurels and bask in its latest creation, Tesla aims to revolutionise the way both individuals and business users control their vehicles. Consequently, every Tesla is essentially networked together.

What this means is that when one car learns something about road conditions, other vehicle's behaviour or the actions of pedestrians, it can be passed on to others. This may sound like an incredibly complex, space-aged system, but it is essentially the best way for Tesla to continually improve its offerings.

"The whole Tesla fleet operates as a network. When one car learns something, they all learn it. That is beyond what other car companies are doing. [Each driver using the new system becomes an] expert trainer for how the autopilot should work," explained Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, as quoted by Fortune.

The rise of autonomy

While Tesla's system is certainly impressive, the company isn't the only one in the automotive space looking to drive autonomous technology forward. Tech Insider noted that Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, BMW, Cadillac and Mitsubishi are all also working on self-driving systems.

What this shows is that autonomous solutions look set to be the way of the future. What does this mean for fleet managers? Well, it will allow their drivers to have a less stress-filled time behind the wheel, as reducing the input of the person in the driving seat is the aim for the majority of autopilot-style systems.

Furthermore, more effective route mapping and efficiency is also likely to be a benefit of the next generation of autonomous technologies. Not only could this boost overall fleet productivity, but economy figures could be bettered too, unlocking even more value from fuel card purchases.

Ultimately, autopilot and self-driving technologies may appear to be something from the world of tomorrow, but companies such as Tesla are doing all they can to allow both casual and professional drivers to leverage them today.