Innovation

Tesla to release 'fully self-driving' mode in 3-6 months: What it means

On Tuesday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk gave a timeline for how soon Teslas will move from 'enhanced autopilot' to 'fully self-driving,' saying that the latter could hit the road by April 2017.

Tesla vehicles are getting full autonomy sooner than you may think

In October 2016, Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a major announcement: All new Teslas, created from that moment forward, would one day be capable of full autonomy. While the vehicles, which Musk called "second generation," or "HW2," were equipped with the advanced hardware to make fully-autonomous driving possible, full autonomy would not be a reality until the software was ready.

On Tuesday, Musk defined a timeline for full autonomy, tweeting that second generation Teslas will have "fully self-driving capability" in three to six months.

Image: screenshot, Twitter

Here's a breakdown of Tesla's autonomous options, what they mean, and what the experts think is possible.

Autopilot

Autopilot is an optional advanced driver-assist feature, allowing for limited autonomous driving on highways. Through a combination of radar, cameras, and GPS, Autopilot allows for automated steering, lane-changing, and braking. It should be made clear that this is not "driverless," and Autopilot users are required to keep their hands on the wheel. In an update to Autopilot in September 2016 meant to enhance safety, the feature will automatically be disabled if this instruction is not followed.

Enhanced Autopilot

In October 2016, Tesla began introducing vehicles with "Enhanced Autopilot," which added new capabilities to the technology. These "second generation" vehicles are equipped with eight cameras that provide 360-degree vision up to 250 meters, and 12 ultrasonic sensors to detect hard and soft obstacles at twice the distance that Autopilot can. Its radar also has advanced processing, and Tesla's onboard computers have 40 times the processing power of the first Autopilot version. This processing system uses a Tesla-created AI system for vision, sonar, and radar. Enhanced Autopilot was first deployed in HW2 Teslas last week.

Fully Self-Driving Capability

Teslas with "fully self-driving capability" have twice as many active cameras. While all HW2 Teslas have eight cameras, only four are active in "Enhanced Autopilot." According to Tesla, the fully self-driving system can "conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver's seat. For Superchargers that have automatic charge connection enabled, you will not even need to plug in your vehicle."

To use the system, Tesla drivers will simply "get in and tell your car where to go," according to the company.

And what if you say nothing? The car will check your calendar and bring you to whatever location is designated for your next event. If there's nothing there, it will take you home. "Your Tesla will figure out the optimal route, navigate urban streets (even without lane markings), manage complex intersections with traffic lights, stop signs and roundabouts, and handle densely packed freeways with cars moving at high speed. When you arrive at your destination, simply step out at the entrance and your car will enter park seek mode, automatically search for a spot and park itself. A tap on your phone summons it back to you., according to Tesla.

SEE: Our autonomous future: How driverless cars will be the first robots we learn to trust

Tesla does acknowledge that this mode is dependent on software validation and regulatory approval. It also notes that these vehicles cannot be used "for revenue purposes," preventing people from purchasing these cars to create a business that could generate income.

Musk's latest announcement takes Autopilot "off the free-flowing roads and puts it on traffic-regulated roads as well, with stop signs, traffic signals, and round-abouts," said Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California. "I think this is ambitious, and it seems like a leap from the current Autopilot that only works on freeways. The hardware on the vehicle will allow this functionality, so this is more of a test for the software."

While Miller calls it "ambitious," other experts are more skeptical.

Image: Tesla

It's "not possible" for Tesla to get fully self-driving cars on the road this year, said Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University. "No company is even close to having fully self-driving capability of cars which presumes the ability to operate in all weather conditions and under all possible combinations of events that drivers encounter."

Ultimately, it's a matter of definitions. "Completely self-driving from any origin to any destination under any conditions without any human monitoring or intervention?" said Bryant Walker Smith, professor at the University of South Carolina and one of the leading experts on the legal aspects of self-driving vehicles. "No. High automation under certain conditions or on a continuous stretch of a road? Yes!"

SEE: Autonomous driving levels 0 to 5: Understanding the differences (TechRepublic)

Michael Ramsey, autonomous vehicle analyst at Gartner, said he believes that the announcement signals that the hands-free system will be downloadable. He doesn't, however, think this means the vehicles will be capable of level 4 autonomy. Level 4 autonomy, for a refresher, is when no human input is required, where a person could "get in it, enter a destination and it would take you door to door," he said--which seems to be what Tesla is saying in the above description. "I don't think that level of capability is realistic in that time frame," he said. "I would be stunned if a system could navigate intersections, for example."

Instead, Ramsey said he believes Tesla will offer a system that makes advanced autonomy possible.

"Some will say it's dangerous, others will love it," he said. "Either way, it pushes the boundaries of the cutting edge."

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Tesla CEO Elon Musk promises HW2 Teslas will have "fully self-driving capability" in the next 3-6 months.
  2. "Fully self-driving capability," as outlined by Tesla, indicates a move from Autopilot to a mode in which humans can "conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver's seat."
  3. Autonomous driving experts agree that the claim is ambitious, and argue that a fully-driverless mode will not be possible in that short time frame.

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