A new series of tweets from Elon Musk has again highlighted the forward thinking that EV enthusiasts say will enable Tesla to remain ahead of the autonomous driving game.
Tesla electric vehicles are already a cut above the average run-of-the-mill car (either electric or fossil-fuelled), and is embodied in Musk’s approach to making driving more than just getting from A to B.
“The Goal for infotainment system is what’s most amount of fun you can have in a car?” said Musk at the company’s second quarter earnings call in 2019.
From Tesla’s “Caraoke” singing game to the addition of cult “run and gun” action game Cuphead in version 10 of Tesla vehicle software, the Californian car maker has already taken several steps towards this, to the point owners on social media are saying their kids prefer playing video games in their car, blurring the line between video console and car console.
But there’s another side to the gamification of Tesla cars that sheds light on a possible new direction for Tesla, and underscores again how well prepared the EV maker is to adapt to the current Covid-19 economic climate and what we increasingly understand will be a very different world post-Covid.
On Sunday evening, a tweet from Musk about the longevity and popularity of open-world building block game Minecraft highlighted a possible strategy to accelerate the implementation of full-featured Full Self Driving (FSD), igniting discussion about the prospect.
Importantly, the phrase “a game that interacts virtually with reality like Pokémon Go while driving safely” bears close attention, and likely also scrutiny.
Anyone think they can get a good multiplayer Minecraft working on Teslas? Or maybe create a game that interacts virtually with reality like Pokémon Go while driving safely? Like a complex version of Pac-man or Mario Kart?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 3, 2020
Any parent with a child under the age of 14 will have heard of both Minecraft and Pokémon Go (Musk, who has 5 children and another one imminently due with partner and avante-garde musician Grimes, certainly has).
For those that haven’t, the significance of Musk mentioning Pokémon Go is in its virtual reality aspect: having grown out of the eponymous 1990s video game, players download the app on their smartphone and walk around streets to find pokémon (A Japanese abbreviation for pocket monsters).
The suggestion is that by “gamifying” driving – perhaps by allowing front cameras on Tesla cars to display the road ahead on the vehicle’s touchscreen display and somehow overlaying “power-ups” – driving a Tesla becomes (even more) fun.
Why? Because as Musk noted on Wednesday’s Q1 2020 earnings call, and has been flagged by VW CEO Herbert Diess as a headache for other car makers, Tesla is already collecting data from 1 million intersections a month now that its latest FSD feature, stopping automatically at traffic lights and stop signs, is live in the US.
Soon, this will rapidly exceed 1 billion as Tesla rolls out the capability to overseas markets (in Australia Tesla vehicles with this software update can now detect traffic and stop signs, but not yet stop automatically at them).
By making the tedious task of driving into a game, Tesla could encourage drivers to collect data from the intersection less travelled, further accelerating FSD by filling in information gaps.
The rollout of full-featured FSD (ie, Level 5 autonomy) will only be approved by regulators if it can be proven beyond a doubt to be safer than humans driving, and the more data that can be collected and processed by Tesla the sooner this is likely to happen.
When that happens, Musk’s vision of 1 million robotaxis – a sprawling and autonomous shared car fleet – will be one step closer.
There are potent environmental benefits too: recent analysis from European clean transport lobby Transport & Environment indicates that the greatest gains in reduction of carbon emissions can be made by shared electric car fleets.
There are some points around the gamification of driving that, as we said, that bear scrutiny. Would such a system simply encourage drivers to take one road home instead of another? Or would people go off on road trips (once Covid-19 restrictions allow it) to “score bonus points”?
Would a gamified feature become part of Tesla’s Premium Connectivity option (we already know people will pay small amounts to be able to access extra features on games), in effect meaning people pay to help Tesla collect data?
Of course, overlaying “power-ups” on a display are a distraction, and this alone begs the question of what risks may be associated with the implementation of such a feature.
It’s not the first time however that electric cars have been gamified – take for example the innovative approach to engaging a younger population in Formula racing that the FIA have built into the Formula E series, such as the “Fanboost” and “Attack Mode” that utilise markings on the racing track to bring an added layer to the electric racing circuit.