For the past several years, we’ve been frustrated by the fact that most of the technology needed for autonomous driving is already present in many production vehicles. If your car has active cruise control and lane detection, there's no technological reason why it can’t operate autonomously on a highway at least some, if not most of the time. There are some very good non-technical reasons; namely, there’s no regulatory or legal framework in place yet for consumer autonomous cars.
Just like us, Elon Musk and Tesla Motors are getting impatient, but unlike us, Tesla is in a position to actually do something about it: Musk has announced that by this summer, a software update will enable the Tesla Model S to drive itself autonomously, hands free, on highways and other major roads.
Tesla's “autopilot” mode should arrive in about three months, with version 7.0 of the Tesla software, according to Musk. Specifically, you’ll be able to go from on-ramp to off-ramp on highways and “major roads” (whatever that means), using the Tesla’s existing active safety systems, including automatic emergency braking, blind spot, front, and side collision warning sensors, along with (presumably) cameras that can recognize lane markers.
“We’re now almost able to travel all the way from San Francisco to Seattle without the driver touching any controls at all. Obviously, this is a feature which requires a lot of validation testing, but we’re hopeful that we can start releasing the first auto steering features in about three months or so. It is technically capable of going from parking lot to parking lot, but we won't be enabling that for users with this hardware suite, because we don't think it's likely to be safe in suburban neighborhoods, where people might be traveling 30 miles an hour and there’s no lane markings and there could be kids playing in the street.”
For those sorts of situations, you'd need a sensor suite more like what you'd find on Google’s autonomous car. At low speeds on private property, though, Tesla is promising even more tricks: you’ll be able to summon your car to you with your smartphone, and send it back to park itself in your garage, closing the door behind it. This only works because the car is moving slowly enough that it can rely on its ultrasonic sensors to detect close-range obstacles and still be able to stop before it runs into something.
In a way, the implementation of low speed autonomy is the more unique move from Tesla. Car manufacturers have been aware for rather a long time that their cars have the technological capability for autonomous highway driving on good roads, in good weather, in daylight with existing hardware and software: all you have to do is combine existing in-car tech like active cruise control with lane detection to keep you from drifting side to side or running into the vehicle in front of you.
In fact, cars with these capabilities have to resort to heavy-handed brute force approaches to make sure you are in control of the vehicle and not just letting them drive along by themselves. The 2014 Mercedes S Class, for example, won't enable its active lane assist capability unless you have your hands on the wheel, signifying that you’re paying attention: take your hands off, and after a warning or two, the car will come to a stop.
Or, you can just tape a soda can to the wheel to fool the hand-detection sensors, and you’ve magically got yourself a self-driving car:
My guess is that Tesla’s hands-free mode is going to be the software equivalent of a soda can taped to the steering wheel, allowing lane detection and active cruise on the highway withour requiring the driver to keep their hands on the wheel.
Let’s be very clear about one thing, though: no matter how fancy your Tesla’s autopilot is, you are still legally required to be in control of the vehicle. This means that if you decide to use the autonomous highway driving capability, you’d better be sitting there paying just as much attention to the road as you would be otherwise, because if anything goes wrong (like, if the autopilot gets confused), a resulting accident is your fault. Just the same as if you’d lost control of the vehicle yourself.
A Tesla spokesperson confirmed this to the New York Times:
Alexis Georgeson, a spokesman for Tesla, said that there was “nothing in our autopilot system that is in conflict with current regulations.”
Ms. Georgeson said the system was designed to be used by an alert driver. “We’re not getting rid of the pilot. This is about releasing the driver from tedious tasks so they can focus and provide better input,” she said.
And Elon Musk himself reinforced it on a press call:
"You’re not supposed to turn on autopilot and go to sleep. There’s certainly an expectation that when autopilot on the Model S is enabled, that you’re paying attention. But it should also take care of you if you have moments of distraction."
In other words: the car may be driving, but you're the driver. If you want to be reading a magazine while the car drives itself, Tesla obviously can't stop you (although they may find a way to try, like Mercedes does), but again, if something goes wrong, “it was the autopilot's fault” is not going to protect you.
It’s also important to keep in mind that even self-driving cars that are far, far more sophisticated than the Tesla still have issues with all sorts of common highway conditions, like construction zones, bad weather, and darkness. We're not suggesting that Teslas will need to be able to deal with these conditions: what’s more likely is that the autopilot just won’t even try it, in which case you (as the driver in control, remember) are going to have to be ready to jump in and take over on very short notice.
The real sticking point for autonomous vehicles has been, and still is, getting to the point where both manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are willing to say, “okay, this autonomous system is safe and reliable enough that it’s allowed to be in control of a vehicle on public roads.” This is the feature that we’ve all been waiting for, the feature that has the potential to revolutionize our transportation infrastructure. Some intrepid company is going to have the take the plunge and say “yes, our technology is up to the challenge,” and it's looking like it might be Tesla.