Autopilot, the Next Killer Application

Tesla Autopilot on the Highway

Yesterday during one of my many calls each week with my seventy-something mom, she mentioned that she might pass on going to her close friend’s 80th birthday party. When I asked why she said that the four and a half-hour drive up the Florida Turnpike was becoming too scary, she said that people are continually cutting her off, and it makes her very fearful. Mom hasn’t had an accident in decades, and she doesn’t have any of the usual scratches and small dents that often deface the autos of our greatest generation. Her vision is excellent, memory is intact, and reflexes are still acceptable. My dad passed seven years ago of lung cancer, and in the final weeks of his life, we had to insist that he no longer drive. At that time, the O2 saturation in his blood would often drop when he sat for a few minutes, and he’d fall asleep due to no fault of his own. Insisting your parent no longer drive and removing access to their car is not a pleasant task.

On relaying this story yesterday to a friend, she mentioned that her mom, also well into her seventies, had significant macular degeneration and was still driving. It wasn’t until her daughter had noticed a dent that her mom volunteered her medical condition. Once that was exposed, they too had to face the task of removing her freedom to travel at will. Another friend has a mom with mild dementia, and while her driving skills are still sharp, she sometimes forgets where she is going or how to get home. They chose to put a tracker on her car and geofence around her house, church, and market so that if she stays within a half-mile of this triangle, she can roam at will. If she gets worried or “lost” family members can quickly look up on their smartphones where she is and calmly provide her with verbal directions to guide her to her destination. While I don’t agree with this approach, it’s not my place to tell them otherwise. Driving is a privilege, but over a certain age, we often perceive it as a right, and taking that away from someone can be mentally crippling. Autopilot should be a fantastic feature for this demographic, but unfortunately, they aren’t, and never will be, intellectually prepared to adopt this feature. We need to get there in steps.

Many were surprised by a Super Bowl commercial this year aptly named “Smaht Pahk” where a 2020 Hyundai Sonata parks itself into an otherwise tight spot. This feature is made possible because of a new breed of computer chips that fuse computing and sensor processing on the same chip. When we say sensor processing, in this case, we’re talking about receiving live data from 12 ultrasonic sensors around the car, four 180-degree fisheye cameras, two 120-degree front, and rear-facing cameras, GPS and an inertial measurement unit (IMU). This is then all consumed by some extremely smart Artificial Intelligence, which then finds and steers the car into a safe parking spot. This article, though, is about Autopilot, so why are we talking about self-parking?

As technology marketers, we’ve learned that cutting edge features, will quickly become a boat anchor if consumers aren’t intellectually prepared to accept it. My favorite example is the IBM Simon; arguably, the first smart phone brought to market 13 years before Steve Jobs debuted the “revolutionary” Apple iPhone. The Simon was on the market for only seven months and sold a mere 50K units. Even more surprising, the prototype was shown two years earlier at the November 1992 COMDEX. There will always be affluent bleeding-edge, early adopters, in the above case 50K, who will purchase revolutionary products, but the gulf between sales to these consumers and the mass market can often be enormous. IBM was correct in pulling the Simon so quickly after its introduction because mass-market consumers were at least a decade behind in adoption. We needed to experience MP3 players in 1998 to accept the Apple iPod three years later in 2001. We also needed to carry around a wide assortment of cell phones, personal organizers, and multifunction calculators. Every one of these devices prepared consumers for the iPhone in 2007. As technology marketers, we need to help consumers walk before we can expect them to run.

Self-driving cars have appeared in science fiction movies many times over the years, one of my favorite scenes being Sandra Bullock in “Demolition Man” (1993) set in 2032. Self-driving isn’t even mentioned; she’s busy face-timing with her boss as her car speeds down the highway. In the foreground, the steering wheel is retracted and moving on its own. We need to slow-roll the public into becoming comfortable yielding control of driving over to the car itself. Technologies like “Auto Emergency Braking” and accepting help from “Lane Keeping Assist” along with “Smart Park” are feature inroads that will make self-driving commonplace. Given how consumers adopt technology, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if its 2032 before self-driving becomes standard in most vehicles. Now Elon Musk, and his team at Tesla, are all brilliant people, as were the IBM Simon team. The difference, though, is that Tesla is selling a car first while delivering a mobile computational platform. The IBM Simon was viewed as a digital assistant first and a phone second. The primary functionality is critical to consumer perception. Consumers know how to buy a car, heck we have a century of experience in this market. Conversely, if Tesla had chosen to market their technology as a mobile computing platform, they’d have gone out of business years ago. I’m sure some readers are still scratching their heads at the notion of a mobile computing platform.

Consumers have become comfortable with their smartwatches and phones, tablets, and computers, all autonomously upgrading while we sleep, so why should their car be any different? Imagine a car whose features are updated remotely and autonomously at night while it is charging. Today Tesla’s Autopilot is restricted to highway driving, with smart features like lane centering, adaptive cruise control, self-parking, automatic lane changing, and summon. Later this year, via a nightly update, some models will pick up recognizing and responding to traffic lights and stop signs, then automatically driving on city streets. So how is this possible? It all goes back to the technology behind self-park.

For all these advanced driving features to take place, we need to put computing as close as possible to where the data originates. Also, these computations need to be instantiated in hardware, easily reprogrammable, ruggedized and run as fully autonomous systems. General-purpose CPUs or even GPUs won’t cut it; these applications are ideal for FPGAs coupled with complete systems on a chip. People aren’t going to wait while their car boots up, then loads software into all its systems. We are accustomed to pressing a button to start the car, shifting it into gear and going.

A truly intelligent autopilot that could go from the home garage to a parking space at the destination and back would address all the above issues for our greatest generation. My mom, who can still drive, should be content supervising a car while it maintains a reasonable highway speed and deftly avoids the automobiles around it. She could then roam from her home in the Florida Keys up both coasts to visit friends because she’d once again be confident behind the wheel. Autopilot is the solution our aging boomers require to maintain their freedom till the very end. Unfortunately, many are too old to accept it intellectually, my mom included. The tail end of the Boomers, perhaps those born in the early 1960s, are the older side of Tesla’s core demographic for this $7,000 Autopilot feature. It’s a shame that the underlying technology and its application came to late for my mom, and her generation.

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