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Tesla joins race to develop road-going robot cars

Future is now: Tesla could pull the wraps from a self-driving, or autonomous, car inside three years.

Self-driving autonomous cars next on Tesla agenda, says founder Elon Musk

Tesla logo20 Sep 2013

THE race to develop production cars that drive themselves is heating up, with cutting-edge American EV maker Tesla entering the fray against big fish Mercedes-Benz and Nissan, as well as tech giant Google.

In the same week as Tesla shares hit an all-time high of nearly $US180, company founder Elon Musk took to Twitter to canvass his plans for autonomous vehicles, and even advertised engineering jobs reporting directly to him.

“Intense effort underway at Tesla to develop a practical autopilot system for Model S,” he posted.

“Engineers interested in working on autonomous driving, pls email autopilot@ teslamotors.com. Team will report directly to me.” Furthermore, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, Mr Musk said the company hoped to have a “90 percent” self-driving model by 2016, with a fully autonomous car entering production a little further down the road.

After a rough few years of financial losses, Tesla is on a bit of a roll. Order banks for the Model S sedan – which recently achieved the highest ever score of any car in US crash tests – are high in Europe and North America.

The company is also working on the forthcoming Model X luxury SUV and rolling out a network of fast-charging devices it calls Superchargers.

Not many specifics are known about Tesla’s plan for self-driving cars, although Mr Musk hinted at a few ideas. Despite its comparatively small size, the Californian company has snuck up on mainstream rivals since its inception with the short time in which it has developed its electric cars.

The well-received Model S is available with a range of more than 400km, which is well above mainstream – albeit cheaper – EVs such as the Nissan Leaf.

“Approach is 360 deg flush mounted tiny cameras + radar (prob not lidar). Lot of software & hardware level image processing,” said Mr Musk.

But while Tesla has ideas on paper – or online, as it were – the company has some catching up to do if it wants to catch its rivals.

Google has been testing is LIDAR-based system for several years, and one of its autonomous Toyota Prius’ was deemed roadworthy by the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles in May 2012.

Mercedes-Benz went public with its hugely ambitious autonomous-vehicle plans at last week’s Frankfurt motor show, signalling its intention to have self-driving cars readily available within this decade.

In a publicity stunt to show its progress, the company ‘drove’ an S-Class with a modified version of its Distronic Plus driver-aid system 100km from Mannheim to Pforzheim, retracing the route driven by Bertha Benz, wife of the inventor of the automobile, Karl Benz, 125 years ago.

Nissan, meantime – which alongside Alliance partner Renault has a global joint-venture scheme with Daimler-Benz to share traditional vehicle technology – has been working for several years with researchers from a total of 23 institutions, including Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, UC Berkley and the University of Tokyo, on self-driving cars.

The Japanese car-maker said last week it would have “multiple, commercially viable” vehicles with its ‘Autonomous Drive’ system ready for the market by 2020.

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