Tesla announces fully self-driving system

Michael Martinez, and Melissa Burden

Tesla Motors Inc. on Wednesday said all vehicles now being produced will have a fully self-driving system, putting it ahead of the pack in the race to full autonomy.

“Every car we make on the order of 2,000 cars a week are shipping with … hardware capable of full driverless capability,” CEO Elon Musk said in a call with reporters Wednesday night. “I think that’s probably unexpected by most that this is happening right now.”

Musk said the vehicles and systems would need regulatory approval before the system could be activated. It’s unclear how soon and in what states these vehicles would be able to operate fully autonomously — without the need for a driver to take control.

“This hardware, combined with Tesla’s existing over-the-air update capabilities, will allow the automaker to continue improving its self-driving capabilities with minimal inconvenience for owners,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. “It’s a big up-front commitment to self-driving technology that other automakers may not be willing to make at this point.”

The California automaker’s surprise announcement comes as traditional manufacturers like Ford Motor Co. and others work to get fully autonomous vehicles on the road within the next five years.

"Tesla prides itself on being ahead of the technological curve, and by installing hardware that will one day make all its vehicles fully autonomous, the company is keeping that legacy alive,” Edmunds.com Executive Director of Industry Analysis Jessica Caldwell in a statement.

Tesla said the cars will be able to drive themselves at a “safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.”

In a less than four-minute video posted Thursday on the Tesla website, a Tesla is shown leaving a garage by itself and someone enters the vehicle, sitting behind the wheel but not controlling the car. The video says: "the person in the driver's seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself."

The Model X SUV travels out of a driveway, turning left onto a street and stopping at a stop sign, before heading left again. During its travels, the SUV stops at stoplights, makes turns, changes lanes, enters a freeway and passes other vehicles, exits a freeway ramp and ultimately arrives at a Tesla office. There, the Model X lets the rider out before circling the parking lot to look for a parking spot. The SUV ultimately parallel parks to end the video.

Tesla customers will be able to buy a car with an enhanced version of Autopilot or a car capable of full self-driving. The enhanced Autopilot system has redundant forward cameras and left and rear cameras, and significantly improved sonar. It will cost $6,000 on the Model S and Model X. Tesla said it could be offered to owners through an over-the-air software update in December, pending validation and regulatory approval.

A fully capable self-driving system would cost another $4,000 and requires the Enhanced Autopilot, Tesla says.

The new system, which goes beyond the driver assist Autopilot it currently offers, features eight surround cameras that provide 360 degree visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. It also includes 12 updated ultrasonic sensors that allow for detection of hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior Autopilot system. A forward-facing radar with enhanced processing allows the car to see through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead.

The system features a new on board computer with more than 40 times the computing power of the previous generation to run the new Tesla-developed neural net for vision, sonar and radar processing software.

Model S and Model X vehicles with this new hardware are already in production, and it will also be available on the upcoming Model 3.

Other automakers are following suit and planning driverless vehicles. Volvo plans a fully self-driving car in 2021, and suppliers like Delphi and Continental as well as tech companies like Google, Uber and Lyft are working on the technology.

General Motors Co. plans to launch a Cadillac CT6 next year with Super Cruise semi-automated technology that will allow the vehicle to drive hands-free, pedals-free on the highway. It is also working on vehicles with full autonomous capability – and has been testing them already on the roads in California and Arizona.

Other automakers are offering longer-term time frames. Kia, for example, doesn’t plan to introduce a fully self-driving car until 2030.

Musk has said Tesla was making improvements to its Autopilot system following the fatal crash in May of Joshua Brown in Florida. Police said Brown was killed in his 2015 Model S that was operating with its Autopilot driver-assist system engaged. The car failed to recognize a semi-trailer that turned left in front of it at an intersection.

Earlier this year, Israeli-based Mobileye and Tesla broke ties. The supplier had provided image sensing technology to Tesla but it had raised safety concerns to the car maker and Musk about the use of Autopilot without hands on the steering wheel.

The May fatal crash continues to be investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

“The question now is how and when will this technology be implemented in the real world?” Caldwell said. “It's like buying a 4K TV today. It might be cool to own one, but until networks start broadcasting regularly in 4K, it's just a vanity purchase.”


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