The race to create cars which can drive themselves from A to B without the need for human intervention has got under way in earnest over the past couple of years, with many dominant automakers from around the world, including Ford and Mercedes-Benz, looking to conquer this new market segment.

With its highly publicised Autopilot feature, Tesla is arguably one of the catalysts behind the current explosion in activity when it comes to autonomous driving. In fact, this has given it a head start, making it the envy of more established firms.

High Praise

Earlier this month the man who is currently head of Volkswagen, Dr Herbert Diess, spoke out about the challenges of creating self-driving cars and indicated that Tesla was able to gain the upper hand because it has already begun to harvest information from its existing vehicles which can be used to improve its autonomous systems.

Anyone who wants to own or hire a Tesla will also effectively be participating in a huge data-gathering exercise, with the array of cameras and sensors fitted around the car able to record and feed back everything they experience to the manufacturer.

The connectivity involved is also an important step forward, since it means that it is easier for Tesla to roll out updates for the software that governs how its cars behave. This can lead to boosts in performance and efficiency but can also result in the vehicles being able to respond more effectively to hazards when Autopilot is engaged.

Future Goals

So far, Tesla has been able to accrue detailed information about 760 million miles of real-world driving from its customers around the globe. This figure is increasing every day and is feeding into its ambition to launch cars that are truly autonomous in their operational capacities by 2018.

Dr Diess said that this advantage of early entry into the marketplace would further increase Tesla’s chances of success. He admitted that VW had nothing like this in place and would not be able to roll it out any time soon because of the costs involved.

The one thing that VW and other major automakers have in their favour is their sheer size and established market presence, but the longer they take to jump on board the self-driving bandwagon, the easier it will be to convince people to buy or hire a Tesla over a VW.

Technological Limitations

Tesla has already proven that the Autopilot service is impressive in its abilities to navigate public roads, controlling speed and steering without the driver having to get involved. But there are still some issues it needs to address.

Aside from improving its ability to operate in adverse weather conditions such as snow, rain and fog, there is a need to convince drivers that it is as safe and reliable as advertised.

Whether or not the public still need to be persuaded about the merits of self-driving cars, there is little doubt that Tesla has the upper hand.