Tesla’s Autopilot: One Step Closer to Self-Driving Cars



One of the beauties of Tesla ownership is the automatic software updates that download overnight, giving owners something new to wake up to every few weeks or so. This week, owners of Model S cars built after October 2014 woke to find themselves the owners of the first self-driving cars on the road — albeit with a few caveats.

Tesla’s Autopilot system has been in the works for quite a while now, so it didn’t exactly come as a surprise, especially as Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, has been personally beta testing the program in his Model S for months now. But with autonomous cars inching ever closer to reality, it wasn’t exactly surprising for the Silicon Valley upstart to make the first move. According to the Autopilot press release:

“While truly driverless cars are still a few years away, Tesla Autopilot functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear. The driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car. What’s more, you always have intuitive access to the information your car is using to inform its actions.”

Tesla Motors Factory Model S
Source: Tesla

So while you can’t press a button and climb into the back seat to take a nap yet, Autopilot joins the Active Steering Assist program found in the Mercedes S-Class and BMW’s self-parking function as the latest milestones in the car’s rapid transformation from a piloted vehicle to an autonomous transportation pod. Though automakers are quick to point out we’re still a ways off from this end goal, Tesla says that the more Model S customers who use Autopilot, the quicker we’re all likely to see fully-autonomous cars. 


With his usual bombast, Elon Musk was the first to point out the importance of Autopilot. In a statement, Musk says: “Today’s update increases the driver’s confidence behind the wheel with features to help the car avoid hazards and reduce the driver’s workload,” but he cautioned again that the self-driving system is in its early stages. “Because the software is still at an early stage, it’s important people exercise caution,” he says, adding, “In the longterm, drivers will not need to keep their hands on the wheel. Eventually there won’t be wheels or pedals.” Until then, the company will rely on its early adopters, which Musk refers to as “expert trainers” to bring the technology as up-to-speed as possible.

According to the company: “… a forward radar, a forward-looking camera, 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors positioned to sense 16 feet around the car in every direction at all speeds, and a high-precision digitally-controlled electric assist braking system” are at the heart of the Autopilot system. The information collected from each car will be uploaded to the Tesla database, and then sent to all other cars to fill in the gaps in its mapping system, an integral part in making self-driving cars effective. As Musk points out: “When one car learns something, the whole fleet learns it.”


Put it all together, and Tesla says Autopilot-equipped cars can:

“… steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control. Digital control of motors, brakes, and steering helps avoid collisions from the front and sides, as well as preventing the car from wandering off the road. Your car can also scan for a parking space, alert you when one is available, and parallel park on command.”

It may not do everything for you, but it’s pretty damn close. We may not be in the age of self-driving cars yet, but if you own a Tesla with Autopilot, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s already here.

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