Elon Musk, the brilliant Tesla CEO whose one true kryptonite on earth is Twitter, tweeted some big plans for Tesla's Navigate on Autopilot system recently. Musk says they're already working on getting the system to navigate stop signs, street lights, and roundabouts.
He also reiterated that he wants Tesla's cars to be able to navigate a parking lot and park all on their own, without the need for a driver's input—which he previously tweeted that he'd like to see in action by 2019.
As Musk notes, the Navigate on Autopilot system is available to Teslas built in the past couple of years. Currently, it can navigate on-ramps and off-ramps, and it gives drivers suggestions for lane changes while it is engaged.
Yet it's also worth noting that Musk didn't outline how these additions to Navigate on Autopilot will work, how long they've been testing this feature, when the company expects to deploy it, or how it will work. Musk didn't even note as to whether they've run this idea past federal regulators like those of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who will no doubt look at anything that performs more tasks for a driver with extreme suspicion.
Being able to navigate city streets on Autopilot would be a huge step forward for Navigate on Autopilot, but it also raises more concerns as to how the system would keep its drivers engaged.
Tesla's Autopilot is frequently criticized for taking control of a car while allowing a driver's attention to wander too far away from what Autopilot is doing. It's what allowed a drunk driver who appeared as if he were asleep at the wheel to lead cops on Autopilot for seven miles, and worse before. Autopilot still isn't a fully autonomous system even though it acts as if it is one at times, and the fact that it only requires a hand on the steering wheel to stay in operation means that drivers tend to over-rely on the system, as it doesn't require their immediate attention. If a driver relies too much on a semi-autonomous system like Tesla's Autopilot, that driver can't react soon enough when the system suddenly needs their input.
That's why it's all the more important for drivers to know how these additional functions will work. We've already seen Autopilot struggle in construction zones where older lane markings peeking through can confuse the system. Devices like stop signs and roundabouts can get snowed over, and traffic lights can malfunction. Furthermore, there's a lot more pedestrian traffic to contend with on regular city streets, and that's something we can't afford to let a car get wrong.
So, we'll have to wait and see what Tesla comes up with for this new addition to Navigation on Autopilot. A system that's able to navigate city streets with minimal driver input is an important step towards the fully autonomous cars I really want: as in, the ones that will let me take a nap while they putter through traffic. Until then, I hope Tesla finds a way to keep the driver's attention a bit better, as they'll be needed more than ever if Autopilot becomes easier to use in towns.