Navigant Research Blog

Tesla Looks to Autonomous Vehicles

Dave Alexander — September 23, 2013

In August, Tesla announced that its Model S had been awarded the highest safety score ever by the United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).   The combined record score of 5.4 stars was made possible by the underlying vehicle architecture, which gives Tesla an advantage over other manufacturers who must optimize conventional vehicles.

The biggest advantage is that the Model S does not have a large, rigid body in the front (i.e., the engine), which makes it easier to design the structural members to collapse steadily and absorb the impact energy.  Building the car out of aluminum also helps the crash performance because the aluminum sections have thicker walls than steel-bodied cars, making it easier for the engineers to design collapse modes that absorb more energy.  Locating the battery under the body also improves stability.

While all this passive safety is a good thing, the leading luxury manufacturers are now concentrating on “active safety,” otherwise known as ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems).  Having now made the interior as safe as possible in a crash, the next goal is to reduce the number of crashes.

Changing the Game

The core functionalities of ADAS – adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and blind spot detection – are notably absent from the options list of the Tesla Model S.  However, tech savvy owners have already been digging around in the onboard menu system and found references to ADAS features for future use.   And to further support this step, Tesla is currently looking for an engineer to implement “fully automated driving.”

On September 18, CEO Elon Musk said in an interview with the Financial Times that Tesla will have an autonomous car by 2016, but then clarified that it would only hand over 90% of the vehicle control.  That remaining 10%, left in the driver’s hands, is essential to meet current legislation.  And how do you calculate control percentages?

So it appears that Tesla is already thinking ahead to the upcoming race toward autonomous driving.  My recent report, Autonomous Vehicles, indicates that Tesla engineers have about 6 years to perfect the technology if they want to take a leadership position in the market.  It seems that they’ve already taken the first steps by building in an upgrade capability in the first of the Model S vehicles.  Add the necessary sensors and a software upgrade and existing owners will have access to the latest ADAS features.  Traditional OEMs prefer their existing customers to trade their vehicles in to get the latest systems, so maybe this is another example of how Tesla is changing the automotive industry.

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