In the race for the self-driving car, data will be key. As we’ve written before, the end-game for autonomous vehicles will be one or two dominant development platforms. But in order to attract developers, automakers need to be one of the first movers at scale with self driving vehicles.
That’s where Tesla has a huge advantage.
According to a Bloomberg report this week, Tesla has amassed an incredible 1.3 billion miles in data thanks to its Autopilot-equipped vehicles.
While these vehicles aren’t fully autonomous, they are still continuously collecting data as they go. Even when Autopilot isn’t active, these vehicles still operate in “shadow mode,” meaning the car’s sensors are still tracking and collecting real-world data. The cumulative miles with Autopilot engaged are at a still-considerable 222 million as of October, when Tesla last publically announced a number.
Tesla plans to release cars with fully autonomous-capable hardware in 2017, although those cars won’t yet be ready for autonomous driving. Tesla has said it will turn on these vehicles’ autonomous capability via software updates over time.
As a point of comparison, Alphabet/Google, often considered a front-runner in the self-driving vehicle race, has amassed 2 million real-world miles, through its recently spun out Waymo division.
Other leaders including GM and Ford have been testing autonomous vehicles in proscribed real-world environments, but none have anywhere close to the amount of data Tesla does.
Why is this mountain of data such a big advantage?
Because safety will be paramount in the first generation of fully autonomous vehicles, both for consumer adoption and regulatory approval. More data translate to better algorithms, meaning better collision detection, navigation, routing and so on.
It also means being better able to operate in more diverse conditions (such as inclement weather) or in a wider range of environments.
Most of Tesla’s competitors are looking at introducing autonomous vehicles as commercial vehicles first, either as part of ride-sharing services or public transit, so Tesla’s consumer-first approach is unique. However, the scale that it provides in terms of data could turn out to be a deciding factor in its favor.
More self-driving vehicles on the road also gives Tesla a leg up in the race to building a development platform. The first to critical mass (typically around 1 million units for a development platform) will have a big advantage over the competing platforms.
Other auto manufacturers are nipping at Tesla’s heels, but it may soon be too late to catch up.