Elon Musk is not a man who is easily deterred. Nearly a year ago, he announced that a Tesla using Autopilot software would drive from Los Angeles to New York City without any input from a human driver before the end of 2017. The end of the year is rapidly approaching, so Father Time is holding Musk’s feet to the fire to make good on his claim.
One facet of Tesla’s Autopilot system — now known as AP 2 — that few people understand or pay much attention to is that every Tesla manufactured since October 2016 has been gathering data from every mile it is driven and sharing that data with the Tesla Mother Ship in Silicon Valley. Operating in “shadow mode,” the system does not directly affect how an individual car operates but it does provide the raw data engineers need to drive progress toward a future in which self driving cars are the norm.
Now, members of the Tesla Motors Club forum indicate that the latest updates to the Autopilot software have expanded the amount of data being collected. After one Model S owner gained access to the data stream being downloaded from his car, Tesla released a statement saying it has begun capturing short video clips from cameras on Model S and Model X vehicles. “We are working hard to improve autonomous safety features and make self-driving a reality for you as soon as possible,” the company now says in its Data Sharing Policy.
The expanded data collection comes at a time when there are rumblings of discontent from within Tesla’s Autopilot division. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that some engineers believe the company is writing checks it can’t cash when it comes to claims about the autonomous driving capability of its cars.
Although the company is careful to say that full autonomy depends on extensive validation of the software and approval from state and federal regulators, it still refers to Autopilot as a “full self-driving” system. That language has led to the departure of several top people who were in charge of Autopilot development for Tesla.
The most recent person to find the exit door was Chris Lattner, a highly respected engineer at Apple who quit after only two months on the job, apparently after butting heads personally with Elon Musk. CNN reported recently that there are still many members of the team who are uncomfortable with the sweeping claims Musk is making for his Autopilot system and the aggressive timetable he has established for its final rollout.
The enhanced data collection suggests the project is still going forward with all possible speed and faster than some within the company are comfortable with. It will be interesting to see whether that transcontinental self driving escape will in fact take place before the end of the year.