Tesla’s approach to self-driving technology is completely different from its rivals. See how it works.

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Hands on the wheel, please!
Hands on the wheel, please!

REUTERS/Alexandria Sage/File Photo

  • Tesla has taken a radically different path to developing fully autonomous vehicles, when compared with competitors, such as Waymo and Cruise.

  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk is confident; last week, he said Tesla could achieve “level five” autonomy this year — meaning no human intervention required.

  • Waymo and Cruise have concentrated in relatively narrow use-cases, while Tesla’s technology could be be broadly applied. 

  • But Waymo and Cruise are also dedicated self-driving companies, while Tesla is also producing and supporting electric vehicles.

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Last week in China, Tesla CEO Elon Musk revisited his enthusiasm for the carmaker’s prospects of delivering fully-autonomous vehicles, and soon.

“I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level five autonomy complete this year,” he said, as reported by Bloomberg.

“I think there are no fundamental challenges remaining for level five autonomy. There are many small problems, and then there’s the challenge of solving all those small problems and then putting the whole system together, and just keep addressing the long tail of problems.”

“Level five” is industry terminology for vehicles that can drive themselves with no human interaction. The conventional wisdom is that there are no true level five vehicles yet. Even Tesla’s main competitors in this space, Waymo and Cruise (the former is part of Alphabet, and the latter is affiliated with General Motors), admit that they have a long, long way to go before they can completely take the driver out of the picture.

Is Musk justified in being so confident? Skeptics say no way. While Waymo has been working on autonomy for over a decade, going back to the original “Google Car” project, and Cruise started out as a dedicated self-driving company before GM acquired it in 2016, Tesla has been adding its own autonomous tech while thus far delivering mainly advanced cruise control to customers.

On top of all that, Tesla’s approach to self-driving is radically different from Waymo’s, Cruise’s, and others in the burgeoning area. 

Here’s what it’s all about, plus a rundown of its advantages and drawbacks:

Tesla Autopilot has been around for about five years. It was initially billed as a handsfree technology, but both the company and I agree that drivers should keep their hands on the wheel as much as possible.

Tesla Model S Autopilot
Tesla Model S Autopilot

Benjamin Zhang/Business Insider

Tesla Autopilot is currently a combination of advanced cruise control with automated steering, plus a few maneuvering functions.

Tesla autopilot
Tesla autopilot

Tesla

What the company calls “full self-driving” technology is available as hardware on all new Teslas, from the Model S …

Tesla Model S.
Tesla Model S.

Tesla

… To the Model X …

Tesla Model X.
Tesla Model X.

Tesla

… To the Model 3 …

Tesla Model 3.
Tesla Model 3.

Matthew DeBord/BI

… To the Model Y …

Tesla Model Y.
Tesla Model Y.

Tesla Motors/Handout via Reuters

… As well as the forthcoming Tesla Semi …

Tesla Semi.
Tesla Semi.

Tesla

… And Cybertruck.

Tesla Cybertruck.
Tesla Cybertruck.

Tesla

Musk is Autopilot’s biggest champion. But he has to be. Tesla has always lagged the competition where autonomy is concerned.

Elon Musk.
Elon Musk.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Meanwhile, Waymo’s “Waymo One” ride-hailing service has been active in Arizona since late 2018.

A Chrysler Pacifica minivan equipped with Waymo's self-driving technology.
A Chrysler Pacifica minivan equipped with Waymo’s self-driving technology.

Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Images

Waymo is also developing cargo/freight services and hopes to integrate with public transit systems.

Meanwhile, Waymo's "Waymo One" ride-hailing service has been active in Arizona since late 2018.
Meanwhile, Waymo’s “Waymo One” ride-hailing service has been active in Arizona since late 2018.

Waymo

CEO John Krafcik frequently refers to Waymo’s tech as a “driver” — a sort of disembodied robot, made of hardware and software, that can pilot any type of vehicle.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik.

Waymo

Waymo has been at this for longer than anybody else. The company, spun off from Alphabet in 2016, got its start as the Google Car project over a decade ago.

Former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt (left) pictured with cofounders Larry Page (center) and Sergey Brin (right).
Former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt (left) pictured with cofounders Larry Page (center) and Sergey Brin (right).

Google

Cruise has decided to focus on rolling out an autonomous ride-hailing service in San Francisco. The company has collaborated with GM and Honda to develop the Cruise Origin, an all-electric shuttle.

Cruise Origin.
Cruise Origin.

Cruise

GM bought Cruise in 2016. Dan Ammann (right), former GM president, is now CEO, and cofounder Kyle Vogt (center) is CTO. Also pictured is cofounder Dan Kan, who is now chief product officer.

Cruise Team GM
Cruise Team GM

GM Cruise

GM and Cruise have been steadily developing an integrated-manufacturing approach to autonomy. Cruise’s tech and software are built into vehicles as part of the assembly process.

A Chevy Bolt EV equipped with Cruise self-driving technology.
A Chevy Bolt EV equipped with Cruise self-driving technology.

GM

Cruise’s tech is optimized for urban environments, but GM also has a fully handsfree highway system in SuperCruise, which thus far has been deployed only on Cadillacs.

Cadillac Super Cruise Drive
Cadillac Super Cruise Drive

Matthew DeBord/BI

Both Cruise and Waymo are heavy users of laser-radar, or Lidar, technology.

Apple self driving car LIDAR sensors rack
Apple self driving car LIDAR sensors rack

MacCallister Higgins

Both companies have focused on making Lidar units smaller and less obtrusive. Most experts think that Lidar is the best way to equip autonomous vehicles to drive themselves, but Cruise and Waymo also use a variety of other systems.

Strobe Lidar
Strobe Lidar

Screenshot via Medium

Tesla, by contrast, doesn’t use Lidar. Autopilot relies on cameras, sensors, and — most importantly — a vast amount of real-world driver information that’s generated by its fleet of cars.

tesla enhanced autopilot video
tesla enhanced autopilot video

Tesla

All that data has to be crunched by powerful computers in the vehicles.

Tesla Autopilot
Tesla Autopilot

Matthew DeBord/BI

I like to think of it as a vast, real-time, multiplayer video game. The potential advantage it offers over Lidar is that it could enable Teslas to achieve network effects, leveraged by artificial intelligence, and allow an Autopiloting vehicle to drive itself just about anywhere.

grand theft auto GTAV
grand theft auto GTAV

“Grand Theft Auto V”/Rockstar Games

Musk’s advocacy for this approach has been unrelenting. He’s a believer. But Tesla is also somewhat behind the curve; the company was so busy creating all-electric cars that it missed some development years.

Elon Musk autopilot no hands
Elon Musk autopilot no hands

CBS News

There’s good reason for each of the companies to be pushing the envelope. According to Cruise’s Ammann, the entire global market for self-driving ride-hailing services could be $8 trillion.

Cruise Slide
Cruise Slide

Cruise

If Tesla has a critical advantage here, it’s that the company intends to make Autopilot as vertically integrated as possible, owning everything. So if the company’s bet pays off, Tesla gets to control everything and keep all the money. But for now, Tesla is playing catch-up, despite what Musk says.

tesla factory
tesla factory

Tesla

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