Innovation

Fully-autonomous driving comes to all new Teslas

On Wednesday, Elon Musk announced that every Tesla currently in production will have the hardware to be driverless, and the software will be available in 2018. Here are the details.


From this moment forward, every new Tesla in production will be created with the hardware required for fully-autonomous driving. This includes the new, $35,000 Model 3, set to be unveiled in mid-2018.

While the hardware will be available, Tesla will still be gathering and learning from data before releasing the software to make full self-driving possible—which it says will happen in 2018. To get there, Tesla said it will "further calibrate the system using millions of miles of real-world driving to ensure significant improvements to safety and convenience."

In 2017, Tesla plans to test drive a fully-autonomous car from Los Angeles to New York.

"We're pretty excited about that," said Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla in a press conference on Wednesday night. "The foundation is laid for the cars to be fully-autonomous at a safety level two times that of a person, maybe better."

The cars will be equipped with Tesla-developed products—no third-party software. According to the release, the Teslas will use:

  • 8 surround cameras with 360 degree visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range
  • 12 updated ultrasonic sensors to detect of both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system
  • Forward-facing radar with enhanced processing to offer information "about the world on a redundant wavelength, capable of seeing through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead"

"Tesla is doing things that no other car company is willing to do," said Michael Ramsey, autonomous vehicle analyst at Gartner. "They are loading every car with sensors, even if they aren't used, then downloading capabilities as they are developed. It all is only possible because of the over-the-air update capability that Tesla employs that allows the company to continually improve the car and fix problems."

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If the test drive to New York is successful, said Ramsey, Tesla "will have proven that upgradeable mindset is the best way to achieve vehicle autonomy. The latest Teslas on the road also will have unprecedented levels of computing power and will also test whether a car company could get away with making a fully autonomous car with no laser sensors—a belief where it stands alone in the industry."

It is important, too, to distinguish this new announcement of a driverless car with Tesla's Autopilot, which has been under criticism after Joshua Brown died on a Florida highway while using the feature in May—the first known fatality since the technology had been released. The incident, for some, supported the view that Tesla had stepped too far too soon. (For a refresher, here's what Autopilot actually is.)

Tesla last updated its Autopilot software in September. Here's what Autopilot 8.0 looks like.

When Tesla's self-driving capability is unveiled, drivers will have the option to use the fully-autonomous mode or Autopilot mode—and can decide when to disengage in each situation.

Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, was enthusiastic. "This will allow Tesla owners to enable the driverless features in the future, and it allows Tesla to test this before deploying it over-the-air," he said. "I think this is a good business model that allows Tesla to sell the hardware with the vehicle before implementing all of the software features."

SEE: Tesla's Master Plan 2.0: AI experts, auto insiders, and Tesla customers weigh in

"This announcement is exciting because it's full of potential," said Bryant Walker Smith, professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and School of Engineering, and one of the leading thinkers in the autonomous vehicle world. "Tesla isn't delivering truly automated driving yet, but it is showing us how it'll get there—and exactly who will eventually get it."

"When Tesla decides that its system is actually ready, then these latent hardware capabilities will enable a pretty amazing Easter Egg!" Smith said.

Smith did add that there's a caveat in the announcement he's surprised about—Musk's suggestion that safety features will be temporarily eliminated. According to the press release, while Tesla is still calibrating its system for self-driving, "Teslas with new hardware will temporarily lack certain features currently available on Teslas with first-generation Autopilot hardware, including some standard safety features such as automatic emergency braking, collision warning, lane holding and active cruise control."

"It's one step back plus the promise of two steps forward," said Smith. "But I wonder about the timing."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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