SAN FRANCISCO -- Last fall, when Tesla Motors Inc. started shipping the Model S sedan with a camera built into the back of the rearview mirror, buyers were baffled. The camera didn't seem to do anything.
Its purpose quickly became clear when Tesla later unveiled an automated driving feature called Autopilot and wirelessly beamed the software to its cars over the Internet.
Last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk signaled that a more capable version of Autopilot will be released this year, bringing Tesla a step closer to a fully self-driving car.
Tesla doesn't have the r&d budget of rivals such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But the Palo Alto, Calif., startup sees its ability to send over-the-air software updates as a crucial edge in the race to self-driving cars because it can quickly roll out technology to vehicles that have already been sold.
"We really designed the Model S to be a very sophisticated computer on wheels," Musk told reporters last week, as the company revealed another update that allows the Model S to communicate in real time with Tesla's proprietary charging stations. "Tesla is as much a software company as a hardware company."
Musk said the Autopilot update would come in Tesla's next software package, Version 7.0, expected to arrive this summer.
The current version of Autopilot works like a sophisticated version of cruise control. Customers can let go of the wheel and pedals at highway speeds while the Model S follows the pace of traffic and stays within lane markings. To change lanes, the driver can simply flick the turn-signal lever; the car checks for an opening and makes the change.