Tesla’s Summon System Highlights Our Distance From True Self-Driving Cars, But Might Also Give an Unexpected Peek Into the Future of Transportation

If you have been following Twitter recently, you may have seen several posts from users documenting their experience using Tesla’s new ‘summon’ feature. The feature was included with Tesla’s latest v.10 update.

Some of the videos feature cars nearly causing accidents…

Some feature the cars getting lost…

While others feature the cars not recognizing curbs.

It may seem funny this is happening, and trust me, it is, however it highlights how far we really are from “self-driving” cars. Also something else, which I’ll come around to.

There’s a reason these systems only exist on the highway. When you think about it, it makes sense. It’s the same reason why you get so bored doing it manually.

There really isn’t much to do.

The highway is a reasonably sterile environment to implement a system like this. All of the cars are travelling a similar speed, in the same direction, and any discrepancies are easily detected. The car can easily calculate appropriate braking and following distances. The interstate is awfully straight, there aren’t many tight corners to be concerned about.

So what happens when you turn a four lane interstate into an infinite lane parking lot, with several cars moving at various speeds in different directions? Or a less-than single-lane driveway? What if you parked your car in a field (like at a rural county fair) and then summoned it?

How good can these systems really get when in some areas, there is such little infrastructure to support them? What happens when fifty people leave a concert venue and all summon their cars to the same spot?

The infinite variety of situations highlights the limitations of such systems. There isn’t always going to be a stop sign where there should be. I know of several places where there are stop signs that really should be yields, and are treated as such by everybody. Will these cars learn to adjust to that?

There will always be a situation where a human driver is necessary. Driving tests will never go away. I know, you’ve probably heard that before from Luddites like me.

The question is, do you have to do it? If you don’t, does this other person have to be in the drivers seat?

Future personal transportation and ride-sharing companies could use these sensors and cameras to operate the car remotely. Taking a drive through a tricky area? That part of the ride could be operated from somebody a hundred miles away, with the remote “driver” handling one car after another, never having to leave his or her desk. You probably would never even know it was happening.

In fact, GM came up with something similar in the fifties; albeit, in a comically fifties sort of way. The interesting part starts at around 4:15, but I recommend you watch the whole thing. It’s… pretty out there.

In any case, this sort of system could be safer than somebody who almost never drives doing it, even if your personal driver is sitting inside a big simulator in the next state over. Insurance companies and consumers would have a vested interest in these “non-driverless” moments being as safe as possible. If the car has a sensor failure and you have only driven once, there’s pretty good odds you’ll either be stranded, or get into an accident. Why risk it with somebody who hasn’t driven since they were sixteen? Get help from somebody who does it all day.

The future of transportation may not involve you driving, but whether that is a program or a person, somebody will certainly be in control.

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