Musk said that he figures Tesla could build a fully autonomous vehicle in about three years, but that the bigger question is the regulatory hurdles that would need to be overcome before being able to tell people they can sleep on their way to work. "We're being especially cautious, especially at this early stage," said CEO Elon Musk. "Over time, there will be no need to have your hands on the wheel," but for now, the company it talking about the software as a beta product and Musk said repeatedly that for now you need to be an engaged driver. He couldn't help but talk about the future, and said that eventually you won't need to keep your hands on the wheel. At some point there won't even be steering wheels or pedals in Autopilot vehicles. Once this sort of hybrid autonomous driving is in user hands for a few years, Tesla (and other automakers) will be able to share data with regulators that show how safe the technology is, and that will make it possible for fully autonomous vehicles to drive us around.
Even so, the technology as it exists today "will be quite a profound experience," Musk said during a conference call with reporters to explain the Autopilot software updates. Tesla engineers have been testing these features for a year, so "we're pretty used to it" and some lucky drivers were also able to get early access to this software, but whenever he puts his friends into a car with the new capabilities, they come away impressed.
Let's run down the Autopilot components in software version 7.0:
- Autosteer: This beta tech lets the car stay in the lane that its in. Thanks to high-resolution GPS maps as well as sensors that look for lane markings, a Model S can recognize where it is in a lane under many circumstances. Harsh weather, like heavy snow, post a challenge for Autosteer, just like it does for people, Musk said.
- Automatic Emergency Steering and Side Collision Warning: The dashboard will illuminate with "fluid lines" to let the driver know there are things that the car thinks are too close.
- Auto Lane Change: When the driver engages the turn signal, the car senses if there is an opening in traffic and moves to the next lane.
- Autopark: In a city at low speeds, the car will keep an eye out for parking spaces, and can then back itself in if the driver gives it the go-ahead.
Each Model S and X can add its own driving data to a centralized Tesla server, so that as one car learns how to move on a particular road, others will be able to learn how to follow that same path. Early Model S vehicles did not come with all of the sensors that Autopilot needs, but there are about 60,000 of these EVs out there that can take advantage of Autopilot. Every vehicle Tesla builds now has the hardware required to operate all of these new features, but owners have to pay extra to turn on what Musk called "convenience features." He said that his company loses a bit of money for each person who doesn't pony up (the safety features that use the same sensors still work), and makes money when people get Autopilot turned on. Tesla will start sending out the 7.0 software update to North America tonight and expects to send it out to Europe and Asia next week, following regulator approval.
In the end, Tesla says that, "While Model S can't make traffic disappear, it can make it a lot easier, safer, and more pleasant to endure." If you've got a Tesla with all of these new goodies, let us know how you're enduring in the Comments below.