Volvo’s been on a very odd warpath lately. Seemingly threatened by Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving system, Autopilot, Volvo has derided that system as “just a beta,” “wannabe,” and implied that it was dangerous. Volvo’s not just flat-out wrong, it’s being remarkably disingenuous.
Volvo’s been trying to make itself seem like the autonomous vehicle king for a while now. Google may be experimenting with the idea of a car, the logic goes, but it’s an established manufacturer like Volvo that’s putting the public in robotically-controlled seats first. It’s made big showy displays about launching autonomous vehicle networks, and lauded its own semi-autonomous system, Pilot Assist, in the most ingratiating manner possible.
Which is great for what appears to partially be a genuine test, yet mostly a marketing stunt.
But the truth of the matter is that Volvo is lagging behind Tesla in its autonomous systems, and this seems like more dumb and blind lashing out. Trent Victor, Volvo’s senior technical leader of crash avoidance, tried to make a very strange comparison in an interview with The Verge the other day:
“It gives you the impression that it’s doing more than it is,” says Trent Victor, senior technical leader of crash avoidance at Volvo, in an interview with The Verge. “[Tesla’s Autopilot] is more of an unsupervised wannabe.”
[...] Volvo’s Drive Me autonomous car, which will launch in a public pilot next year, is a Level 4 autonomous car — this means not only will it drive itself down the road, but it is capable of handling any situation that it comes across without any human intervention. As a result, the human doesn’t need to be involved in the driving at all. If something goes wrong, the car can safely stop itself at the side of the road.
Victor’s assessment seems to be based on two notions at the same time. The first is that Volvo is working on a Level 4 autonomous system, allowing complete door-to-door robotic driving, while Tesla’s Autopilot is but a mere Level 3 system, and can only really take over on the highway.
At the same time, Victor appears to be pointing out the Tesla Double Tap. That’s not the official name for it, mind you, but it’s what we call it. Basically what happens is that every so often, Tesla’s Autopilot will ask you to place your hands on the steering wheel—partially when it gets a bit nervous about road conditions, and partially to make sure you’re not dead. If you don’t take control right away, the Tesla will make noises at you. If you still don’t take control, it will make even louder noises at you.
And if you still refuse to take the wheel because you’re either obstinate or dead, the Tesla will come to a halt. No matter where you are. Even if you’re on the fast lane of a highway, where it’s a strong possibility you’ll be smashed into from behind and very possibly killed, were you not dead before.
Ergo, the Tesla Double Tap.
But all concerns about your confirming a kill besides, that seems to be more of a simple programming issue at this point. The Tesla knows where the lanes are, it knows where the road is, and with a bit of software magic and some updates it’ll probably find a way to get you to the side of the road.
(In the meantime, don’t, uh, die. In general. But also not while your Tesla is driving you around.)
But Victor’s larger point, about a Level 4 versus Level 3 system, is where Volvo’s entire argument goes off the rails. Because it’s a classic apples-to-oranges comparison, and the only way we’ll really be able to tell whose system is better is if they were both competing at the same level. For all of Volvo’s publicity about its Level 4 system, which is still very much in testing in its own right, the company doesn’t plan for it to debut until around 2020.
And funnily enough, Tesla’s Level 4 fully-autonomous system isn’t supposed to debut until around then either. Tesla’s never claimed that its current iteration of Autopilot is as good as a Level 4 system. In fact, while I believe it to be a Level 3 system, capable of taking over many safety-critical functions according to the federal government’s classification guidelines, Tesla says that its Autopilot system is merely at Level 2, combining features of lanekeeping assist and cruise control.
Much of that, however, is neither here nor there for this argument. Victor’s comparison of Tesla’s system to a fully-autonomous one isn’t fair. What would be fair, on the other hand, is a comparison of two like-minded systems.
Which is good news for us, because both Volvo and Tesla have semi-autonomous systems in production cars, right now.
The truth of the matter is that Volvo’s Pilot Assist, at least so far as it’s been offered in the Volvo XC90, seems to be way more of a wannabe beta test that’s ever so slightly dangerous. I know this, because I’m one of the relatively few people around the world that has spent significant seat time with both Volvo’s semi-autonomous system and Tesla’s semi-autonomous system.
The Volvo XC90 is overall an incredibly great car (I’ve said as much before), but Pilot Assist is the vehicle’s Achilles’ Heel. In traffic, it accelerates slowly, stops short, leaves massive gaps in front of you – ostensibly a safety measure – encouraging cars in other lanes to cut you off, and seems to lose sight of the dotted lines marking the lines on anything but the most perfect blacktop, and constantly nags at you to keep your hands in the wheel. Which sort of defeats the purpose of a semi-autonomous system, if you still have to hold your hands there while the car anxiously steers itself around, like you’re trying to teach a child how to use a knife.
And worse yet, even in the most perfect conditions, it only works up to about 30 miles per hour.
Tesla’s Autopilot system, on the other hand, seems to come from another planet. It’s often better than many human drivers I’ve been with on the highway. It’s smooth and predictable, unbowed by random little blips and bumps that come with the world of driving. Wear-and-tear take the lanes away for a bit? No problem. The car knows where the road goes, and stays where the lane would be. Want to travel at real highway speeds, when you want an autonomous system most? Not an issue there, either – we’ve personally tested Tesla’s system up to around 80 miles per hour, where it didn’t seem bothered at all, and Tesla’s told us that they’ve tested the system internally up to speeds “upwards of 120 miles per hour,” without incident.
It’ll even change lanes on its own, provided you’re still checking the mirrors for someone storming up fast in the next lane over, moving quickly enough to present a danger but far enough behind so that the Tesla can’t see it.
Is Tesla’s system perfect? No. It gets a little weird in inclement weather, and despite Tesla’s claims of Autopilot safety, the system has been involved in accidents.
And is Volvo’s system doomed to failure? Absolutely not. These things take time. The second-generation of Volvo’s Pilot Assist debuts on the new 2017 S90 sedan this summer, and word on the street is that it’s actually pretty good.
This petty sniping really is just that—petty sniping. Most people aren’t buying cars solely based on semi-autonomous gimmicks at the moment. And soon enough, most cars in the United States will be capable of driving you wherever you want to go, door-to-door, full stop.
But if we’re going to talk about semi-autonomous systems that really just seem like wannabe beta tests, we’ll start with Volvo’s current system first.