Teslas are a bit like smartphones in that they get wireless software updates once in a while that bring new features and improvements to both the user interface of the car (the big touchscreen in the center console) and to the actual operation of the vehicle (faster acceleration, ways to tune the suspension, etc). For example, the company claimed that its 6.2 update made it "impossible to intentionally run out of range."
When the company first unveiled what it calls 'Autopilot', or some limited self-driving features that will be available on all Model S EVs produced after the fall of 2014 and on the Model X, it wasn't quite clear how fast they would become available to the general public. Well, that day is approaching fast:
The car will learn over time, but there is a min caliber of starting quality.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 31, 2015
@CatherineMotuz yes— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 31, 2015
@alipoursamar all regions— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 31, 2015
The question is, how much autonomy would 'highway autosteer' have? Probably not complete freedom at first, but it's certainly a big step in the direction of self-driving vehicles.
The hardware that was added to the Model S last fall to allow this includes a radar looking ahead, cameras, and a 360-degree ultrasonic sonar. These give the vehicle awareness of its surrounding as illustrated above. Autopilot will be updated over time with software updates, but as of a few months ago, it could read speed limit signs and keep the car at the speed limit on the highway. It could also automatically change lanes if the space in the next lane is free after the drive asks it to by activating the turn signal.
Musk tweeted above that the system would learn over time, and that things learned by all Teslas would be shared between cars to increase the rate of improvement. Quite the software challenge! Tesla is turning into Google...
Over time, Autopilot should be able to self-park, do parallel parking, automatically park in your garage, etc. It's easy to imagine that over time it'll become more and more autonomous, though just the "assisted driving" features could help with safety (such as notifying you of lane departure and such).
Here's a video that shows Tesla's Autopilot feature in action at Tesla's event:
Via Elon Musk