With important advances in radar, cameras, and GPS, there has been an explosion in research and development of autonomous car technology. Driverless vehicles–which will include fleets of trucks, shuttles, and sharing economy services like Uber–are set to shake up the driving world for businesses and professionals. They are also expected to substantially lower accidents on the road–one report predicts that accidents will drop by 80% by 2040.

So what is a “driverless” vehicle? And what is “autonomous driving technology?” A deeper look at Tesla’s Autopilot provides insight into the bigger picture of driverless car research. Autopilot does not turn a Tesla into a driverless car. It is Tesla’s autonomous driving feature that aims to assist drivers on highways. Autopilot-enabled vehicles can automatically steer, change lanes, and apply brakes–but still require a human behind the wheel.

This comprehensive guide explains what the feature really does.

Update on August 1, 2018: Check out our new Tesla’s Autopilot cheat sheet.

Executive summary

  • What is Tesla’s Autopilot? Autopilot is an add-on feature for Tesla Model S and X announced in October 2014, which is when cars in production were first enabled with Autopilot technology. It is meant to assist in highway driving. The technology uses a combination of radar, cameras, and GPS. When engaged, Autopilot-enabled vehicles can self-steer, adjust speed, detect nearby obstacles, apply brakes, and park. Enhanced Autopilot, or Autopilot 8.1, applies to all Teslas made after October 19, 2016.
  • Why does Tesla’s Autopilot matter? Autopilot is one of the most advanced autonomous driving features that is currently available to real drivers on the road. Tesla’s philosophy of releasing updated technology incrementally became controversial following the May 2016 fatality that happened in a car with Autopilot enabled. What happens with regulations for Tesla Autopilot will have implications for all driverless car research and development in the future.
  • Who does Tesla’s Autopilot affect? There are, as of July 2016, more than 70,000 drivers using Autopilot. These drivers have driven 780 million miles in Autopilot-enabled Teslas. But, lessons from the technology will impact regulations and the development of driverless vehicles in the future–and thus, any driver or passenger of these vehicles.
  • When was Tesla’s Autopilot released? Autopilot, currently in beta mode as of August 2017, was released in October 2015, and is updated whenever new technology becomes available. Tesla owners who have Autopilot can download updates over-the-air to their car.
  • How can I take advantage of Tesla’s Autopilot? Tesla Model S and X owners with cars made in 2014 or later are able to purchase Autopilot as an add-on feature. New Tesla buyers can select it as an option at the time of purchase.

SEE: Elon Musk and the cult of Tesla: How a tech startup rattled the auto industry to its core (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What is Tesla’s Autopilot?

Autopilot 8.0

Tesla calls Autopilot a “driving assistance feature”–essentially, a super-smart cruise control. Intended for highway driving, it’s an optional feature that is enabled through a combination of cameras, radar, and GPS. Autopilot users are able to relax control of the car (although they are still instructed to keep their hands on the wheel), as the feature can steer, adjust speed, detect obstacles, and apply brakes. Here’s how it works:

  • Forward-looking radar: The radar in Autopilot can see up to 500 feet ahead of the car, through “sand, snow, fog–almost anything,” according to Tesla founder Elon Musk. While the radar in Autopilot 7.0 was built by Mobileye, in 8.0 it was created by Tesla. Radar is the primary sensor used to detect the vehicle’s surroundings, along with the front-facing cameras.
  • Camera: The forward-facing camera on the windshield of the car serves as a backup to the radar, and can see stop signs, traffic lights, etc.
  • Sonar: A 360-degree, ultrasonic sonar can detect nearby obstacles, which Musk said establishes a “cocoon” around the car. The 12 ultrasonic sensors that make up the sonar can see objects like a child or a dog, and are functional at any speed. This feature can also detect objects in blind spots.
  • GPS: This navigation system can detect the car’s position on the road.
  • Tesla nav: In this newer feature, Tesla drivers can enter an address into a navigation system, which will allow the car to automatically change lanes and exit the freeway, whereas before, the lane-changing had to happen manually.

Tesla’s radar technology provides detailed interpretations of the visual field in order to anticipate possible collisions with other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, animals, debris, and other obstacles. It can detect markings in the road like barriers, lanes, and traffic lights. It also provides real-time data for precise localization and high-definition lane information, and is based on “software running on an EyeQ processing platforms that extracts landmarks and roadway information,” according to the company.

SEE: Tesla Autopilot: Behind the wheel of the world’s first AI-powered driving experience (TechRepublic)

Tesla Autopilot is also called Tesla 8.0. According to Musk, this new version of Autopilot, which can detect dense material in front of the vehicle, would have prevented the May 2016 Joshua Brown fatality. Here’s what Tesla says about its updated radar:

“Tesla will be able to bounce the radar signal under a vehicle in front–using the radar pulse signature and photon time of flight to distinguish the signal–and still brake even when trailing a car that is opaque to both vision and radar. The car in front might hit the UFO in dense fog, but the Tesla will not.”

While Tesla Autopilot should not be confused with a “driverless vehicle,” there are several recent technological advances at work in Autopilot that play into its development.

Gill Pratt, the head of the Toyota Research Institute (which is part of a $1 billion investment in AI by the company), points to several of these key advances:

  • Mobile phones: The explosive growth of mobile technology, low-powered computer processors, computer vision chips and cameras, and cell phones in general have become “incredibly inexpensive and ubiquitous.”
  • Wireless internet: The rise of 4G networks and Wi-Fi have made it easier than ever to connect.
  • Computer centers in cars: Most new cars today have backup cameras, front and back sensors, and other technologies that help drivers detect objects in the environment.
  • Maps: Navigation systems in cars and apps such as Google Maps on phones have become very reliable.
  • Deep learning: Some computers now have “perception at levels of competence close to what a human has,” said Pratt. “The car can look out on the world and tell the difference between a bicycle and a person that’s walking, and a tree and a parking meter–and it can then classify them almost as well as we can, or, in some cases, even a little bit better.”

Autopilot 8.1 (Enhanced Autopilot)

On October 19, 2016, Tesla began introducing vehicles with “Enhanced Autopilot,” which added new capabilities to the original version. Musk dubbed these “second generation” or “HW2” vehicles, promising that they would be capable of full autonomy once the software is ready–which, in January 2017, he said could happen in 3-6 months. If your Tesla is HW2, you can purchase Autopilot for $5,000.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

Autopilot 8.1 vehicles have eight cameras (as opposed to the single camera in the original version). Four are currently active, and the other four will be activated in the future “fully self-driving capability” mode. The 360-degree vision extends up to 250 meters, and 12 ultrasonic sensors can detect hard and soft obstacles at twice the distance of Autopilot 8.0. These vehicles have advanced-processing radar and onboard computers, powered by Nvidia’s Titan GPU, with 40 times the processing power of the original Autopilot. Additionally, the processor uses a Tesla-created AI system for vision, sonar, and radar.

Fully self-driving capability

All Teslas produced on or after October 19, 2017, will have “fully self-driving capability”–which can be activated as soon as the software is ready. This system costs $8,000 at the time of purchase, and includes the Enhanced Autopilot features. In this mode, all eight cameras will be activated. This feature will allow for “short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat,” according to Tesla. “For Superchargers that have automatic charge connection enabled, you will not even need to plug in your vehicle.”

Tesla drivers who want to use this mode can simply “get in and tell your car where to go,” according to the company. If no directions are given, the car will check your calendar and bring you to whatever location is designated for your next event. And if nothing is on the calendar, the car will drive 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.

Additional resources:

Why does Tesla’s Autopilot matter?

After the May 2016 fatality that occurred in a Tesla Model S running on Autopilot–the first known death that happened in a vehicle using Autopilot–there has been a debate over whether we have come too far too fast in releasing autonomous driving technology on the road. In January 2017, the NHTSA ruled to clear Tesla’s Autopilot system of any fault in the incident. The new Autopilot 8.0 technology, which Musk said would have prevented the accident, also aims to address these concerns. Now, if a Tesla driver is operating Autopilot incorrectly, with hands off the wheel, Tesla will not let users re-engage Autosteer if they have ignored safety warnings.

Although the technology that enables radar, cameras, and GPS has become very advanced, we are still at least a couple of years away from seeing fully-autonomous vehicles on the road. Most automakers are saying that they plan to have a semi-autonomous vehicle available by 2020.

Still, how the public and regulators react to Autopilot could affect other carmakers. In September 2016, the US Department of Transportation released guidelines on the development of autonomous vehicle technology.

SEE: Tech and the future of transportation (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Some states currently have specific laws that would ban autonomous driving–New York state, for instance, does not allow any hands-free driving. Without clear regulations, testing self-driving cars is a challenge. Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Vermont and Washington D.C. have all passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles, as of August 2017.

According to Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, that’s partly a result of lobbying pressure from Silicon Valley and auto companies in the state. “They’re lobbying the legislature, saying, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta do something,'” said Miller. “And California doesn’t want Google to go to another state to get help.”

But without specific regulations, many questions remain unanswered. Where will liability rest? (Here’s more on how autonomous driving is poised to shake up the entire car insurance industry.) What will licensing look like? Will new drivers still be required to get traditional licenses, even if they aren’t behind the wheel? What about young people, or older people with disabilities? What will be required to operate these new vehicles?

Additional resources:

Who does Tesla’s Autopilot affect?

While autonomous driving at this point only directly affects a relatively small group of drivers, lessons from the technology will impact regulations and the development of driverless vehicles in the critical years ahead that will decide the future of this technology. And, as such, all potential future drivers and passengers of these vehicles have something at stake.

Tesla’s Autopilot also affects the auto industry in a larger way, by shifting its focus towards technology. Several large automakers, including Ford and Toyota, have announced big plans for moving attention and resources towards the development of AI, which is used to enable autonomous driving.

SEE: The Advanced Guide to Deep Learning and Artificial Intelligence Bundle (TechRepublic Academy)

Just about any organization that uses transportation in some way–whether it’s using vans to deliver products or transport employees across town, operating cars as cabs or ride-sharing vehicles, or deploying fleets of trucks for cross-country shipping–will be impacted by driverless vehicle technology such as Autopilot. It will also have a big impact on regulators like the US Department of Transportation, lawmakers, insurance companies, and many other industries.

Additional resources:

When was Tesla’s Autopilot released?

Autopilot, currently in beta mode, was released in October 2015, and is updated whenever new technology becomes available, which can happen as often as every couple of weeks. Tesla owners who have Autopilot can download updates over-the-air to their car.

While Autopilot is currently only enabled in Tesla Model S and X, it is expected that the Model 3, which Tesla expects to release in mid-2018, will also have Autopilot available. Tesla announced in October 2016 that the Model 3, as well as every other Tesla currently in production, will now have the hardware to eventually enable full autonomy–which it plans to have available by 2018.

Additional resources:

How can I take advantage of Tesla’s Autopilot?

If you have a Tesla Model S or Model X that was produced after the fall of 2014, you have either opted to purchase the car with Autopilot, or may have added it on after the purchase. You can immediately start using the feature after purchase. Here are the technologies that make Autopilot possible, according to Tesla.

Autosteer (Beta): This feature keeps the car in the current lane and engages Traffic-Aware Cruise Control to maintain the car’s speed. Using a variety of measures including steering angle, steering rate, and speed to determine the appropriate operation, AutoSteer assists the driver on the road, making the driving experience easier.

Tesla requires drivers to remain engaged and aware when Autosteer is enabled. Drivers must keep their hands on the steering wheel, or else an alert goes off.

Auto Lane Change: Changing lanes when Autosteer is engaged is simple: Engage the turn signal and the Model S will move itself to the adjacent lane when it is safe to do so.

Automatic Emergency Steering and Side Collision Warning: Side Collision Warning further enhances the active safety capabilities by sensing range and alerting drivers to objects, such as cars, that are too close to the side of the Tesla. When the car detects an object close to its side, fluid lines will radiate from the car’s image in the Instrument Panel to alert the driver.

Autopark: Model S can now parallel park itself, eliminating the need for drivers to worry about complex and difficult parking maneuvers. When driving at low speeds around cities, a “P” will appear on the Instrument Panel when the Tesla detects a parking spot. The Autopark guide will appear on the touchscreen along with the rear camera display, and, once activated, Autopark will begin to park itself by controlling steering and vehicle speed.

Additional resources:

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