Medicine Hat man’s Tesla can drive itself (mostly)

A Medicine Hat man is among a handful of Canadians testing out Tesla’s new full self-driving computer. 

That means Brangwyn Jones can punch his destination into GPS, and the car takes care of the rest. 

“The car can initiate lane changes on its own,” said Jones.

“It will do turns, it will watch the lights, it will stop at a stop sign and then creep forward.”

At least, that’s how it works most of the time. 

The car is not fully autonomous yet and relies on Jones to be there as a backup. He was chosen to take part in the technology’s beta testing phase after completing a multi-day safety test and paying $10,000 to upgrade the car’s software.

Occasionally the technology slips up, such as leaving a necessary lane change until the very last second, Jones said. He and other drivers submit feedback about these errors to Tesla so the company can build a better final product. 

“It’s [like] a teenager learning how to drive, with a lot of input from dad behind the wheel,” he said.

Jones said the car mostly takes the lead, and it can change lanes and identify obstacles independently. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Fully autonomous vehicles still in the future

It’s likely that autonomous vehicles will need the help of “dads” like Jones for a while yet, according to Ian Jack. 

While people might dream about the prospect of reading a book or watching TV behind the wheel, a Canadian Automobile Association spokesperson believes that reality is at least a decade away. 

“All of the technology is coming, but it’s not quite there yet in a form that’s going to allow us to drive completely autonomously in complete safety,” he said. 

“Is it coming down the road? For sure. Is it going to be in the next couple of years? That’s highly doubtful.” 

The cars are not yet fully autonomous and still require driver supervision. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Another obstacle is that, no matter how advanced an automaker’s in-house technology, fully autonomous vehicles will be reliant on outside factors — such as the development of a 5G network. Jack said this would allow cars to “talk” to each other better and make faster judgment calls while driving. 

Randy Goebel, a professor of computing science at the University of Alberta, agrees. 

Balance between intelligence and infrastructure

“The real challenge of self-driving is a balance between the intelligence of the infrastructure and the intelligence of the vehicle,” said Goebel, who is also a fellow and co-founder of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute. 

Striking that balance will take a lot of work, he said. 

For example, Goebel said Edmonton has more than 1,800 intersections. It may be possible to add a 5G transponder to each one — but it will require both time and collaboration between the automakers and the infrastructure providers, he said. 

“They have to both be on the same page with respect to the communication between the infrastructure and the vehicle,” he said.

Alberta Transportation said it is aware of the Tesla testing project in the province but it not involved. This form of transportation is being monitored by Alberta’s government as the technology and innovation continues to advance.

As for Jones, he believes a future is coming when self-driving cars will be common and will eliminate many of the careless mistakes drivers make. 

Even if that’s a long way off, he’s happy for now to be one of the fortunate few on the cutting edge of technology. 

“I’m that nerd that absolutely loves the latest software version,” he said.

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