While many automakers are talking about what level of autonomous capability their vehicles will have in the future, Tesla CEO Elon Musk is also pointing the future, which in this case is Thursday which when he told owners they would be the getting autopilot option in their vehicles.
The company’s founder tweeted the news out over the weekend, adding that next over-the-air software update would include the feature as well as auto parking capability as well.
The details have yet to be released, but based on past chats with Musk, the Model S will be capable of maintaining its position in a lane while keeping a safe distance from vehicles in front of it. The company has also been working on auto parking, which would maneuver the vehicle into a garage.
The self-driving mode, however, limited catapults Tesla to the front of the semi-autonomous pack, ahead of big talkers Nissan, Cadillac and others who have been pointing to mid- to late-2016 before their technologies would be made available.
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Toyota recently announced it wouldn’t have any form of self-driving ready until 2020. In the meantime, Google continues testing its fleet of fully autonomous bubble cars in California and General Motors recently said it would begin testing a fleet of self-driving Volts on its tech center campus just outside of Detroit.
Autopilot is a step toward self-driving cars. Musk told shareholders in June that he thinks fully self-driving versions of the Model S could arrive in as little as three years. The autopilot program has been in the works for some time. Last year, the company laid out what it saw as its capabilities.
“Model S will be able to steer to stay within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by reading road signs and using active, traffic aware cruise control. It will take several months for all Autopilot features to be completed and uploaded to the cars,” according to the Tesla website.
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Musk has said that autopilot wouldn’t be the same as a fully autonomous vehicle, but it would be “similar to systems that pilots use to increase comfort and safety when conditions are clear. Tesla’s Autopilot is a way to relieve drivers of the most boring and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel – but the driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car.”
The company does have lofty expectations for the feature, such as checking your online calendar each morning and calculating the time needed to get to your first appointment for the day, set the car’s climate controls to a preferred setting, turn the radio on to a preset selection and even automatically open the garage door.
The key to the autopilot for the Model S and Model X is the 12 sensors on the bottom of each vehicle, a front-facing camera next to the rear-view mirror, and a radar system under the nose. Each has a different function, such as scanning speed limit signs and notifying the driver when the vehicle exceeds the speed limit.
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Others handle following lane lines automatically and taking turns without the driver touching the wheel. Musk said at some point, the vehicles may have a “valet park mode” that can allow the owner essentially to “call” the car where it would come to driver without anyone actually getting behind the wheel.