Car and Driver test of AEB systems

American automotive magazine Car and Driver recently undertook a series of comprehensive tests of Autonomous Energy Braking (AEB) systems, involving the Subaru Impreza, Toyota Camry, Tesla Model S and the Cadillac CT6. Four types of tests were undertaken:

  • Closing in on a stationary car

  • Target switching to a stationary car

  • Maximum deceleration

  • Approaching a slower moving vehicle

The article is excellent and definitely worth reading in its entirely. The key takeaway I found was that despite AEB systems ostensibly claiming to achieve the same goal of preventing, or at the very least mitigating the impact of a collision with another vehicle, the performance of such systems varies substantially and is often not dependent on the class or price of the vehicle. For example, the Subaru Impreza’s EyeSight stereo camera system outperformed the other vehicles on test despite being the cheapest to buy.

In the U.S. at least, another takeaway is the state of legislation in relation to AEB systems. The NHTSA (National Highway Transport Safety Administration, effectively America’s equivalent to ANCAP) has a very basic requirement in order to satisfy its AEB test which most vehicles today can easily meet. These requirements should proactively become tougher, to further compel manufacturers to invest more in AEB systems and additional capabilities such as pedestrian and cyclist detection.

$180,000 Tesla Model X lacks autonomous emergency braking

Correction, 9/09/2017: Some readers have pointed out that the Tesla Model X does, in fact, come standard with autonomous emergency braking (AEB). After calling the Tesla Store in St Leonards, Sydney, I can confirm that all new Tesla Model X and S vehicles come standard with autonomous emergency braking and forward collision warning. The system works as follows:

  1. From 0-40 km/h the Forward Collision Warning (FCW) system will warn the driver of an impending collision.
  2. Above 40 km/h, the Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) system will apply the brakes if it detects an impending collision. There is no upper speed limit after which the system will not work, however, the likelihood of the car coming to a complete stop before the potential accident will decrease at higher speeds.

I'm not sure why the particular Model X tested by CarAdvice did not have AEB. Even if the Model X tested was an older model, I would assume that Tesla's fleet of loan/review cars is kept up-to-date with the latest software. I will update this article if I receive further information on the particular Model X used by CarAdvice.

It's important to note that the key point of the article, that essential safety features such as AEB should not be compromised in favour of software development, remains valid. From October 2016 towards the end of April 2017, new Tesla vehicles sold did not have any form of AEB.  

The original article continues below: 

Paul Maric, reviewing the Tesla Model X 75D for CarAdvice:

"But here is the problem. While we had the car on loan, all the data collected by 'Hardware 1' Tesla vehicles is obsolete. Hardware 1 was Tesla's first iteration of cameras and sensors used for AutoPilot, autonomous emergency braking and radar cruise control.

Now that the camera and sensor count has increased, all of that 'self learning' data is wiped and new data needs to be collected. With other car brands, they test this technology first, implement their learnings and release the vehicle to market. Tesla, instead, uses its customers effectively as test pilots until it has enough data to enable those features.

That means our test car didn't have features like autonomous emergency braking, automatic high beam lights, automatic windscreen wipers, side collision warning, lane departure warning, high-speed automatic steering, automatic lane change, semi-autonomous parking and Tesla's Summon self-parking feature.

You read that right – this car, with an on-road price tag of over $180,000 doesn't have automatic windscreen wipers. That's technology standard on a $20,000 Mazda 2 – even the entry-level $14,990 Mazda 2 has autonomous emergency braking as standard.

We don't really care what excuses Tesla has for this technology being non-existent at the moment, it's not good enough. It's not good enough for a $50,000 car, let alone one worth almost $200,000. Even the top-specification Model X P100D worth over $300,000 doesn't have this technology. You're kidding, right?"

It's understandable that Tesla, as a new player in the automotive industry, needs to be seen as technologically ahead of other automakers to differentiate itself. It's also understandable that in order to maintain this lead, the company will frequently trial and test beta software.

However, basic safety features should never be compromised in favour of software development. When a $14,990 Mazda 2 right at the budget end of the market comes standard with AEB, it's fair to say that the industry across the board can and should deem AEB a safety feature as essential as an airbag. For a $180,000 car to not have this feature is shameful.

It doesn't matter whether the Model X will have this feature soon, or has had it in the past, or that this is a temporary problem. AEB is now a feature so essential that there should never be a point in any vehicle's life-cycle where it is not standard. The fact is, if you walk out of a Tesla showroom right now with a Model X, you cannot have AEB. Tesla has compromised on a crucial safety feature today in favour of better autonomous driving at some point in the future. That is inexcusable. 

At this point, I have to reinforce what Paul says in the second paragraph of the quoted excerpt. Tesla may be one of the few (if not the only) manufacturer that delivers seamless, over-the-air software updates to improve their car, much like how Apple updates the iPhone or Google with the Pixel. It should rightly be applauded for this. But other manufacturers also don't remove safety features from their cars and then use the customer as a pawn when developing their replacements. Instead, they take time to develop and throughly test these features to a point where they reliably work well before selling the car to the customer. A comparably priced car from another manufacturer may not have software that will be improved in the future, but it will also come out of the box (so to speak) with essential safety features like AEB that will reliably work well, and won't be removed in the future. 

To compare with the approach of a conventional manufacturer, look at the new Audi A8 that has recently been launched. This vehicle today arguably has a superior autonomous driving ability than Tesla's Autopilot. I'm sure Audi could have launched this car 18-24 months ago without AEB or any self-driving features, and then have progressively implemented those features via software updates as it developed its self-driving technology. Instead, Audi took the development time and resources to ensure that these self-driving features work reliably well from the first instance that customers use them. The company is even confident enough with this technology to accept liability if the vehicle crashes whilst driving itself.

There's little doubt that Tesla's focus on technology and making great electric vehicles has caught the attention of the wider public, and has pushed the rest of the industry to compete. However, putting the customer's safety at risk today, by removing AEB, in order to develop self-driving software that will be available at some vague point in the future, is an act by Tesla that is reckless and almost criminal. 

Above: Tesla's Model X and Audi's A8

Volvo to include electric motor on every vehicle from 2019

From the Volvo press release:

"Volvo Cars will introduce a portfolio of electrified cars across its model range, embracing fully electric cars, plug in hybrid cars and mild hybrid cars.

It will launch five fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021, three of which will be Volvo models and two of which will be high performance electrified cars from Polestar, Volvo Cars’ performance car arm. Full details of these models will be announced at a later date.

These five cars will be supplemented by a range of petrol and diesel plug in hybrid and mild hybrid 48 volt options on all models, representing one of the broadest electrified car offerings of any car maker."

This is another significant development for Volvo, which has lately been having a renaissance under the ownership of Geely in forging its own, differentiated identity. To go from zero fully electric vehicles in 2018, to five by 2021, a space of only three years, will be a big achievement. More importantly, it is a substantive acknowledgment by a 'traditional', mainstream automotive manufacturer that the writing is on the wall for the internal combustion engine. 

It's understandable that a mainstream manufacturer such as Volvo may not desire to leave existing customers (that live in areas with poor electric vehicle charging support) to hang out to dry by immediately ceasing support and development of combustion engined vehicles. But what is more important to understand is that hybrid vehicles that marry an electric motor to a combustion engine are a mere transition point, and not the final solution to achieving sustainable transport.

The only pragmatic option for sustainable transport is a fully electric vehicle powered by electricity from a renewable energy source. The sooner the automotive industry realises this, and follows Tesla's lead in independently building the requisite infrastructure, or forms a partnership with government to do so, the better. At this early stage, however, it's applaudable that Volvo has looked to the future and boldly taken a bet on a powertrain that currently only makes up a minuscule, albeit growing, share of the global automotive market.

Above: From left to right, the Volvo S90, V90, XC60 and XC90 T8 plug-in hybrid range. These vehicles represent Volvo's current range of only partial electric vehicles. 

Build from scratch or convert to an electric vehicle?

Rachel Burgess, writing for Autocar:

"Which is wisest? The use of a single electric platform must make engineering infinitely easier, rather than heavily adapting existing architectures. But the obvious upside of offering electric variants of existing models is the equity of that model’s name. Aren’t you much more likely to buy a well-regarded model that just happens to have an electric powertrain rather than an unknown?"

Re-engineering a combustion engine car to fit an electric powertrain appears to be the pragmatic option in terms of retaining brand awareness and minimising the cost and time taken to develop the car. In 2020, the ordinary consumer will know exactly what a VW e-Golf is; namely a compact, affordable five door hatchback with an electric powertrain. How many of those consumers, in contrast, will know what a VW I.D. is? I would wager far less than the e-Golf.

What is even more clear, however, is that the electric powertrain is fundamentally different from that of a combustion engined car. A car with a powertrain so different from its combustion engined counterpart must, in turn, be built from scratch in a fundamentally different manner in order to reap the maximum benefits of the electric powertrain.

Consider the remarkable Tesla Model S, for example. The Model S is able to offer peerless acceleration and best in class safety and practicality (with a 'frunk' and large rear boot) because, not despite, it being been built and designed from the ground up for an electric powertrain. Could Tesla have saved time and money buying an existing, conventional mid-size platform and chassis from any number of manufacturers and then refitting an electric motor, akin to the original Tesla Roadster? Of course. But would it have enabled the same levels of practicality, performance and safety as a new, specially engineered ground up design? Most likely not.

The Tesla story goes to show that tailored design and engineering can create a substantially better product than an ostensibly easier 'swap engine for electric motor' approach. Famously, Tesla has undertaken little to no marketing of the Model S. How often do you see a print, television or web advertisement of a Tesla vehicle? Yours truly has certainly never seen one, and yet the Model S and upcoming Model 3 are the talk of the town. For Tesla at least, the fact of the matter is that its approach to electric vehicle design and engineering has developed vehicles so substantively better than the competition that traditional marketing is unnecessary and word-of-mouth alone is enough. 

Word-of-mouth has long been known to be the most effective form of marketing. After all, are you more likely to believe a company's own advertisement or the recommendation of a trusted friend or family member? Ultimately, this solves the challenge posed by Burgess in the quoted Autocar article. With tailored design and engineering producing a substantially better product, the car will market itself and eventually create a greater brand equity than if the manufacturer had chosen a conventional 'engine swap' approach.

Tesla hires Volvo interior designer

Jonathan M. Gitlin, writing for Ars Technica:

Anyone who has driven a Model S or Model X also can’t help but notice the company’s weakest point—the terrible interiors. Evidently Tesla has realized this and has poached Volvo’s head of interiors, Anders Bell, in order to remedy the problem.

It’s not just a lack of design flair—although that is certainly true. It’s also the materials used, most of which would look out of place in an economy car in 2016, let alone a luxury SUV or sedan that starts out at more than $60,000. And this stuff is important. As a driver, the interior of a car is the bit that you’ll look at and touch almost all the time.

Acres of flat, black shiny plastic abound. The Model X central storage bin has cheap removable inserts for cup holders. And the cubby that lives below the massive touchscreen in the Model S? No one thought to give it a lip at the forward edge, so anything you put in there is headed straight for the back seat the moment you hit the accelerator. And that’s before we’ve touched on the Q&A problems—the last Model S the company let me drive had that cubby misaligned, so there was a half-inch gap at the upper left corner.

Yours truly has recently sat in a Tesla Model S, and whilst the technology on offer in the interior, such as the digital instrument cluster and expansive tablet-style touchscreen are seriously impressive, the materials used aren't, with obviously fake metal trim and plastic wood. 

It's unclear as to precisely what influence Anders Bell had in the interior development of vehicles like the S90, but this looks to be a great hire for Tesla. Volvo has recently been on a roll in creating stunning, honestly designed interiors. If Tesla can replicate Volvo's interior design expertise it will be a huge advantage for them.      

Tesla Model S P100D

From the Tesla press release:

The Model S P100D with Ludicrous mode is the third fastest accelerating production car ever produced, with a 0-60 mph time of 2.5 seconds. However, both the LaFerrari and the Porsche 918 Spyder were limited run, million dollar vehicles and cannot be bought new. While those cars are small two seaters with very little luggage space, the pure electric, all-wheel drive Model S P100D has four doors, seats up to 5 adults plus 2 children and has exceptional cargo capacity.

The 100 kWh battery also increases range substantially to an estimated 315 miles on the EPA cycle and 613 km on the EU cycle, making it the first to go beyond 300 miles and the longest range production electric vehicle by far.

It is incredible that the fastest accelerating vehicle you can currently purchase is not an exclusive, multimillion dollar sports car, but a practical family sedan with spacious luggage storage and comfortable seating for five. I can't think of a car where the phrase 'you can have your cake and eat it too' is more apt.

It's noteworthy that, with only a decade of development, a small, startup-like company is producing vehicles that have all but overtaken combustion engine powered cars not only in terms of performance, but in practicality and safety as well. This, more than anything, is evidence that the internal combustion engine is on its way out. We're only just getting started with electric vehicle development, and it's already obvious that the fundamental technology is an order of magnitude better than any fossil fuel powered car before it.

Having said that, electric vehicles will not sell on the virtue of being electric cars alone. Why has Tesla succeeded when other electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, despite being thousands of dollars cheaper, have failed? Because the Tesla is a great car, a product the consumer aspires to own. The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, is a showcase of the potential of electric vehicles. But is it a great car? No.

Manufacturers must ensure that electric vehicles, first and foremost, are great cars. The design must take full advantage of the electric powertrain, and the company must also go to the effort of providing supporting infrastructure to alleviate any perceived shortcomings such as range anxiety. To this extent, the electric vehicle cannot be sold as a 'trophy' car used to demonstrate a company's or the consumer's ostensible commitment to the environment, but rather must be a vehicle that is sustainable, livable, and is practical enough to be used every day (and of course is envrionmentally friendly). Tesla has done this by going to the effort of developing an extensive network of 'Supercharger' fast charging points, and by using the extra space offered by the electric motor to substantially increase luggage space and safety via a 'front boot' and a much larger crumple zone.

Every electric vehicle will be more environmentally friendly than its combustion engine counterpart. Of course it will, as that is the innate nature of the powertrain itself. But what will distinguish a successful electric vehicle is whether it is a great car. At the moment, only Tesla, and perhaps BMW with its i3 and i8, meet this standard.

An electric car being environmentally friendly will be as much of a selling point in the future as a petrol car having fuel injection is today. Effectively null.   

Thoughts on the fatal Tesla Autopilot accident

Tesla describes the accident on its official blog as follows:

The vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S.

Above: Tesla Model S instrument cluster showing that Autopilot mode is active. 

Contrary to certain media reports, it is important to remember that using Autopilot mode does not make the Tesla a self-driving car. Not only is the Autopilot software itself still in beta testing (i.e. not ready for widespread public use), the driver is required to ensure their hands remain on the steering wheel at all times, and to be prepared to resume manual driving at any moment. Enabling Autopilot does not mean the driver can take their eyes off the road or lose awareness of their surrounding environment.

The New York Times article linked above later quotes Karl Brauer, an analyst with the American automotive research firm Kelly Blue Book:

This is a bit of a wake-up call,” Mr. Brauer said. “People who were maybe too aggressive in taking the position that we’re almost there, this technology is going to be in the market very soon, maybe need to reassess that.

Karl Brauer's statement needs to be placed into context. The vast majority of car accidents are caused at least in part by human error. So there is no doubt that when used as intended (as an assistive feature that warns the driver of any potential hazards, but over which the driver maintains full control), Tesla's Autopilot can only improve road safety. Citing a single misuse of Autopilot as a justification to call for all autonomous driving technologies to be re-assessed in terms of their safety and viability on the road is, frankly, misleading.

Nevertheless, it is clear that true driverless cars in the near future will be a significant enough departure from current vehicles that they will require their own set of regulations and governing laws. Perhaps a safety and regulations agency, in the vein of the Global NCAP, but for driverless cars, could be created to consolidate and ensure uniform regulations for autonomous vehicles? 

As tragic as it may be, it is also plain that the introduction of such technology will have teething issues, as society adapts to driverless vehicles, and that the consequences of these teething issues could involve fatal accidents. What is important, however, is for regulators and the media to not lose sight of the overall view that autonomous technologies are not detrimental to, but instead enhance, road and driver safety and are beneficial to society.

Thus, any future regulations relating to driverless vehicles must not be knee-jerk, impulsive reactions to accidents such as the imposition of bans or other widespread restrictions, but should instead empower the development of this new technology.