Tesla Motors Inc. will release its highly anticipated Autopilot features to some owners of its all-electric Model S sedan Thursday.
The 7.0 update will bring self-driving capabilities to the 60,000 Tesla Model S cars with autonomous capability, as well as for the new Model X SUV, Elon Musk, the company’s CEO said at a news conference.
However, he warned that it is still very much a beta product. As functionality improves, drivers should keep their hands on the wheel as the autopilot currently does not take into account stop signs and red lights, but it can manage lane changing and driving down the highway.
A fully self-driving car from Tesla is almost three years away, Musk said. Those cars will follow the Google way and ditch the steering wheel and pedals. Till then, nearly 60,000 Tesla cars will be able to make use of Autopilot after it rolls out. But the functionality will cost almost $2,500. Many eligible Tesla owners ordered and paid for Autopilot when purchasing their cars, but those who opted out can pay for and activate it at any time.
Paying and non-paying owners will be offered safety features like emergency braking and side-collision and lane-departure warnings with the version 7.0 update.
All cars manufactured by Tesla as of September 2014 will support Autopilot. Those vehicles will feature have a special system of four sensors: ultrasonic sensors around the perimeter of the car that can spot hurdles; a forward-facing camera with image recognition that sees lane markings and signs; forward radar that can detect bigger objects and manoeuvre through bad weather; and GPS with high-precision maps for navigation.
In a press presentation on Wednesday, Musk said Autopilot will work better on roads with clear cut road markings and in heavy traffic, mainly in areas in which the car's sensors have something to examine.
The road marking issues certain challenges when the paint fades. Sometimes Autopilot has trouble identifying the lane markings. In such cases, the car switches to GPS.
Tesla has been testing its system since about a year with volunteers, and customers. The rollout starts tonight for North America, but could take some days to reach all cars, Musk said. Europe and Asia will have it in about a week pending regulatory approval.
Those who own older Teslas will have to add a radar and camera system, among other things, which would need a new bumper and wind screen.