While fully autonomous driving is not ready for prime time yet, car makers are making a lot of progress on driver assistance systems. Owners of Tesla cars regularly wake up in the morning to discover that their car has gained a new feature and today Tesla started pushing outs its Version 7.0 update - which adds "autopilot" functionality to its Model S.
Once you're on the road, the Autopilot functionality adjusts steering to keep the car in its current lane, and it also manages speed and distance from the car ahead. Tesla co-founder Elon Musk is careful to call out Autopilot as a beta feature, and for legal reasons, advises people to keep their hands on the wheel at all times:
The fact that Tesla tells drivers to keep their hands on the wheel even when the car is steering for them also helps keep liability squarely out of their court: "If there is an accident, the driver of the car is responsible," Musk said, while also noting that there would eventually be a time that self-driving vehicles are safe and reliable enough to abdicate drivers of that liability entirely.
Furthermore, the software update also adds support for Auto Lane Change, a feature that can automatically move the car to the adjacent lane when you tap the turn signal, Automatic Emergency Steering and Side Collision Warning, which nudge the car away from danger an alert the driver as necessary, and Autopark. The latter feature is already found on some rivaling cars, it gives the car the capability to automatically park itself.
The driving assistance features use four types of sensors: forward radar, forward-facing camera, 360-degree ultrasonic drivers, and GPS. The system taps into Tesla's own high-resolution navigation maps, which are continuously improved as the real-world sensor data from 7.0-equipped vehicles is transmitted to a Tesla server. These maps are incredibly detailed as the cars track individual lanes and features of roadways, and even individual parking spots. Tesla promises the functionality will improve continuously thanks to its "fleet learning technology".
The 7.0 update will be rolled out the Model X at a later date. Tesla expects fully autonomous driving will be possible within a year or three.
Here's a video showing Jalopnik's first experience with Autopilot, the tester calls it creepy and wonderful at the same time. It is quite incredible to see how fast cars are evolving, at present these features are exclusively for super-expensive cars like Model S but a couple of years from now this kind of technology will make its way to the average car. It's also quite astonishing to realize this feature was automatically added to the car via an over-the-air software update.
Scary and exciting at the same time. Other car makers have similar features but not as advanced at what Tesla just rolled out to the Model S fleet.