An autonomous driving future in Australia is now one step closer, with Tesla drivers in Australia who have received the latest “over-the-air” (OTA) update for their electric vehicles now testing out the long-awaited Smart Summon feature promised by the Californian EV maker.
The new Smart Summon feature, which is one more tick in the box towards fully autonomous driving for Tesla electric vehicles, began rolling out to folks in the US in the last days of September, but Australian drivers who had paid for the “Full Self Driving” (FSD) package were left waiting.
However, the feature is now being “drip-fed” to Tesla vehicles for owners who have paid for FSD, via the latest OTA update, and some owners are already putting it to the test.
But first, some background: Tesla treats its electric vehicles as upgradable “software-on-wheels”, a fact that CEO Elon Musk believes will result in Tesla vehicles becoming more valuable over time compared to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which he points out are superceded as soon as they drive off the lot.
This ability to upgrade as time goes on means that not only can the vehicles become more efficient, as has been seen in the latest EPA ratings, where the Tesla Model 3 surpassed the all-electric Hyundai Ioniq (and this will be applied to all Model 3s, whether bought in 2017, 2019, or 2020).
It also means that new features such as Smart Summon can be added to the vehicle days, weeks, even years after it has been purchased.
Smart Summon is just one of a slew of features that will be rolled out over coming months by Tesla, and it means that drivers can quite literally summon their vehicle from across the other side of a carpark without anyone in the driver’s seat.
It deals with the issues of slow driving – sensing and navigating around other cars and pedestrians – as opposed to the challenges of high speed driving on highways, which Tesla’s other feature Navigate on Autopilot (NoA) addresses.
Now that Tesla has introduced both of these features, it is now working on the most difficult piece of the puzzle – safely driving at medium speed on public roads through obstacles like stop signs traffic lights.
Musk believes that by the end of 2020, once this puzzle has been solved, that Tesla vehicles will be technically capable (although not yet approved by regulators) of driving without human intervention most of the time (but with supervision) from home to work and back again.
So, it’s an exciting day for the Tesla community in Australia.
Autonomous driving is said to have the potential to significantly reduce crash rates – Tesla’s own figures state than compared to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s average of one accident per 0.5 million miles, the use of Autopilot (the most basic self driving feature that comes standard in Tesla vehicles) results in just one accident per 4.34 million miles.
However, despite the claimed reduction in accident rates for Autopilot, Smart Summon received a fair dose of negative attention as the carmaker rolled out the software in the US.
But after gathering the data from over a million uses since its release, Musk says Tesla has been able to introduce a “number of improvements” to make the implementation of Smart Summon better.
“It really illustrates the value of having a massive fleet because it allows us to collect these corner cases and learn from them … and become rapidly better,” said Musk.
Example of the latest improvements are now coming in, as first Tesla drivers demonstrate their vehicles coming to meet them in carparks.
Some examples have been posted by Twitterer @MelbTeslaMatt, such as this one where the vehicle backs out of its space and then does a reverse turn, first stopping to let a white SUV pass.
— Melb Tesla Matt (@MelbTeslaMatt) November 8, 2019
Alex Shoolman, who published a comprehensive run down on what Tesla’s plans for FSD are on Friday, has given a first appraisal of the feature (also via Twitter).
#SmartSummon on 2019.36.2.1 on #Model3AU
– Travels at a confident, good pace
– Makes ~1 extra turn/move than a normal person would when navigating
– Nailed all different situations I put it in, even cramped spots
– Surreal having a full sized car just roll out like a RC car 😮
— Alex Shoolman (@AlexShoolman) November 10, 2019
As Smart Summon continues to roll out we can expect to see more examples of the feature being utilised in Australian carparks (Tesla is very clear that it is not yet meant for public roads) – an occurrence that will at first surprise many no doubt but also slowly but surely normalise the concept of self-driving for the average person.
Interestingly, now that the arrival of Smart Summon is now upon us, the price of FSD remains at $A8,500 (CEO and co-founder Elon Musk previously said it would increase by $US1,000 on November 1, 2019 for regions that have Smart Summon) – it could be that Tesla is waiting until the roll out to current Tesla vehicles in Australia is complete.
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.