After releasing the feature to a limited number of beta testers a few months ago, Tesla has now unleashed its Autopilot to the world with a new software update for its Model S (version 7.0), showing that it is just as much a software company as it is an electric car and energy company.
On one hand, it's very cool to think that an electric car could keep getting better over time as new features and tweaks are downloaded wirelessly! On the other, it's slightly uncomfortable to think that this Autopilot (which, for now, is limited to very specific situations - more on that below) is being tested on public roads. But this is only scary until you remember just how bad humans are at driving; they get tired, drunk, can have bad vision, slow reflexes, get distracted, get road rage, etc... Self-driving cars have the potential to be much safer when the technology is mature, and to get there we have to start somewhere.
The trend is clear: Someday we'll have vehicles with radars and ultrasonic sensors and cameras that provide an unblinking 360 degrees vision that sees through darkness and fog, At all times the computer will know where it is on a highly detailed, frequently updated map and it'll be able to communicate wirelessly with other nearby vehicles. To a CPU that can query all its sensors thousands of times per second, everything appears to be happening in slow motion, so if the software is smart enough, it shouldn't be too hard to do better than humans in the vast majority of situations (of course, nothing is perfect).
That's the goal, anyway. We're not there yet, but with Tesla's new software, we're taking a bold step forward.
Your Autopilot is arriving over-the-air, of course pic.twitter.com/BNw6Z67qL5— Tesla Motors (@TeslaMotors) October 15, 2015
The Model S software version 7.0 offers:
Autopilot allows Model S to 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. [...]
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.
Of course, when you're used to being in control, giving it up can feel truly weird, as this video from Jalopnik calling the system "creepy and wonderful" shows:
Another interesting thing that Tesla is doing with its cars, and to help build the future, more advanced Autopilot: High-detail mapping.
Google (and now Apple) have been driving around with fleets of vehicles full of sensors to map the world. At first this was primarily to build their mapping software, and there Google is a clear leader, but all this data will also no doubt help with self-driving vehicles. While Google in particular has a big headstart on everyone, Tesla has a secret weapon: It has tends of thousands of vehicles on the road that have advanced sensors and complex software, as well as an internet connection that allows them to share that data back with the mothership.
And every day, Tesla is adding more cars to the road all around the world... This is a larger data-gathering fleet than either Google or Apple has, and could allow Tesla to have better high-detail maps of the world, updated in almost real-time, with lane-level precision. And as one car learns something, all Teslas learn it via their cloud connection. It's a distributed learning machine. Quite a brilliant model!
In any case, it certainly seems like self-driving cars are having their mainstream moment. Here's Stephen Colbert on the topic: