SAN FRANCISCO -- Tesla Motors, in its most ambitious step toward self-driving cars, is rolling out a long-awaited software package called Autopilot for its Model S sedan, rivaling features from luxury brands such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Autopilot, which will be downloaded to Tesla’s cars using an over-the-air software update starting tonight, includes a sophisticated version of cruise control that allows the Model S to follow a lane on the highway and change lanes when the driver flicks the turn signal level. It also includes an automatic parallel parking feature that detects an open parking space and takes control of the wheel and pedals if the driver asks for the car to park itself.
"We're advising drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case, because the software is still at an early stage," Tesla CEO Elon Musk told reporters during a press conference today. "It's important that people exercise caution at the beginning,” he added, but “in the long term, people will not need to have their hands on the wheel, and eventually, there won't be wheels."
Tesla has been working on Autopilot since 2013, when it started assembling its team of automated driving engineers. Last year Tesla started building the Model S with the necessary hardware for autopilot -- a forward-looking camera, long-range radar and ultrasonic sensors -- in anticipation of today’s software update.
Since then, Tesla has built about 60,000 cars with Autopilot hardware. Customers must pay a one-time fee of $2,500 to activate the self-driving software when they buy a car, or $3,000 to activate the feature after delivery.
As part of Tesla’s new Version 7.0 software package, Autopilot will be beamed down to cars in the United States over the next week, followed by Europe and Asia. Tesla’s new Model X crossover, which is at the early stages of a production ramp-up at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., will also offer Version 7.0 and Autopilot.
Autopilot offers many of the same features as “traffic jam assist” systems from companies such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Musk said Autopilot is unique insofar as it will get better over time, thanks to further over-the-air updates.
The next update, Version 7.1, will include a feature that allows a driver to send a Tesla to autonomously park itself in the garage, or summon it back.
Autopilot relies on high-resolution maps that Tesla has built in-house by tracking where its cars have driven. If cars appear to be switching out of Autopilot mode at a particular spot on the road, Musk said, Tesla will update its maps and its software.
"The big differentiator here is that the whole Tesla fleet operates as a network, so when one car learns something, the whole fleet learns it,” Musk said. It is a “powerful network effect,” he said, adding that “any car company that doesn’t do this will not be able to have a good autonomous driving system."
Musk said he expects Tesla to have a fully autonomous car, capable of driving from Point A to Point B without any input from a human driver, in three years. He said that Tesla intends to remain at the vanguard of the technology.
"The two most profound innovations in automotive since the moving production line,” he said, “are electrification and autonomy.”
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