Tesla’s Autopilot has undergone notable improvements over the past years. With the rollout of Software Version 9 and the eventual release of Navigate on Autopilot, the company has moved closer to Elon Musk’s ultimate goal of having a fleet of vehicles capable of full self-driving. Just like the company’s ongoing production ramp for the Model 3, the rapid rollout of Autopilot’s improvements is partly the result of Musk’s frontline leadership style and his bold approach to software testing.
When Tesla runs into difficulties, Musk makes it a point to deal with challenges firsthand. During the production ramp of the Model X, Musk started sleeping on the floor of the Fremont factory so that he could “lead from the front lines.” He adopted the same approach in the Model 3 ramp, as the company struggled to hit its self-imposed manufacturing targets, particularly at the end of the second quarter. Apart from sleeping at the Fremont factory once more, anecdotes from the Tesla community indicated that when the company was setting up GA4 on the grounds of the facility, Musk was there, torquing bolts with his workers.
A new report from The Information noted that Elon Musk adopts the same frontline approach to Autopilot testing. According to the publication’s sources, Musk personally drives an “engineering car” that allows him to adjust the sensitivity settings of pre-released “development build” versions of the driver-assist system. This allows Musk to make the software as aggressive as possible, thereby testing the limits of Autopilot’s capabilities. Members of the Autopilot team use developer builds of the system in their personal vehicles as well, but no one reportedly pushes Autopilot as much as Musk.
By pushing the driver-assist system to its limits, Musk has found himself in “situations that many of us wouldn’t want to be in,” according to one of the publication’s sources. While undeniably risky, Musk has also been pivotal in finding the “big bugs” in the system, while identifying the most notable areas where Autopilot should improve. In one such instance, Musk’s experiences while testing the software ended up improving Autopilot’s capability to steer clear from large vehicles that may unintentionally cross into a Tesla’s lane.
Elon Musk’s tendency to consistently test Autopilot’s limits has undoubtedly contributed to the relatively quick improvements in Autopilot that Tesla’s customers are enjoying today. Navigate on Autopilot, for one, introduced highway on-ramp to off-ramp capabilities to the driver-assist system — a feature that Musk mentioned during the 2018 Annual Shareholder Meeting. Navigate on Autopilot’s Mad Max setting, which is available on Tesla’s vehicles after a recent update, was teased by Elon Musk on Twitter prior to its rollout as well.
Considering the pace of Tesla’s constant innovation, the upcoming release of Advanced Summon, the first features of Tesla’s Full Self-Driving suite, and the rollout of the company’s custom-built Hardware 3, there is a good chance that Elon Musk’s vision of having a fleet of electric cars equipped with full autonomy could soon become a reality. And once it does, owners would have Musk to thank for being Autopilot’s main tester.