Musk Admits Tesla’s Automated Drive System May Need More Computing Horsepower

Forbes.com

November 10, 2017

The company appears to acknowledge the limitations of its current hardware and seems open to upgrading, without mentioning how much that may cost.

Tesla wants to create truly self-driving cars, but may need a tweak or two to its current hardware to do that.

A year after Tesla started selling vehicles pre-equipped with hardware the company claimed was sufficient for “full” autonomous driving—in advance of the artificial intelligence needed to make that happen—CEO Elon Musk is hedging his bets and conceding that a more powerful computer may be needed.

During a call with analysts, after the electric-car maker posted a bigger-than-expected quarterly loss, Musk said he remains “quite confident” Tesla’s current system can achieve “approximately human-level autonomy.” (That’s not a category on the SAE Automated Driving scale used by auto and tech firms working on robotic vehicles, though he’s said that SAE Level 4 and even Level 5 “full automation” are possible with Tesla’s sensors and computing hardware.)

That may not be enough.

“The question is not just full autonomy, but full autonomy with what level of reliability?” he said on the call. (Here’s a guess: A lot.) “And what will be acceptable to regulators?”

“For customers that have signed up for self-driving capability, or purchased that option, if it does turn out that a computer upgrade is necessary in order to meet the regulatory requirement in their area, we will replace their computer with something with greater power.”

Tesla’s brand image is built on leading-edge tech. Increasingly, that means autonomous driving. While the company was early to market with its semi-autonomous Autopilot option in late 2014, which offered automated lane changes, self-parking and, at least initially, periods of hands-free driving on the highway, as well as a vehicle “summon” mode, its progress appears to have hit some snags. Tesla made multiple changes in its automated drive team, and has yet to offer many promised upgrades or complete the cross-country autonomous drive Musk said could happen by 2017.

And despite its confidence in the hardware currently being used, Tesla has yet to roll out the advanced driving updates Musk has promised since last year to allow ever-greater levels of autonomous driving.

Tesla’s computing system is the current Nvidia’s Drive PX. Last month, Nvidia announced it would start delivering a next-generation Drive PX, dubbed Pegasus, in 2018 that would be at least 10 times more powerful than the unit Tesla now uses. In fact, Nvidia even said the new platform is specifically designed for Level 5 driving.

Musk said on the Wednesday call that Tesla would make a hardware-related announcement soon and declined to provide specifics. He said that if a more powerful computer were needed, the replacement process would be relatively painless.

“Just unplug the old one and plug the new one in.” No mention of how costly such a switch might be. Tesla appeared to acknowledge the shortcomings of its current system in its shareholder letter published November 1. The company said it has improved its “neural net” system for processing large amounts of visual sensor data to help the car see and understand its surrounding. Doing so was, “an exceptionally difficult problem, as it must fit into far less computing power than is typically used.”

Not everyone will find that to be a phrase that inspires confidence.

Unlike every other major company developing self-driving technology, Musk has so far eschewed the need to make laser LiDAR, which creates high-definition, 3-D “point cloud” maps, part of Tesla’s sensor suite. He expressed confidence last year that multiple cameras, radar and ultrasonic devices provide sufficient 360-degree vision needed for autonomous driving. But with the admission that more computer power is needed, one can reasonably wonder what other modifications may be needed.

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