REUTERS/Stephen LamIt can practically drive itself.On Thursday, Tesla announced several over-the-air software updates to the Model S sedan, bringing an end to "range anxiety" and better integrating the company's electric cars with its Supercharger network for longer journeys.
But CEO Elon Musk also said that Tesla's "Autopilot" self-driving feature would be coming online more fully by mid-year.
The current version of the software running on the Model S allows for sophisticated cruise control, lane changing, and automated parking. Under controlled circumstances, the Model S can even put itself into its own garage.
But the car has enough sensors to be able to drive itself, for all practical purposes. Musk said that in a few months, additional software upgrades would enable self-driving on highways. Drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel.
On a conference call, Musk was asked if the feature had passed muster with regulators. He said that Tesla was working with the government to obtain the required approvals.
Several automakers have been granted permission by a small number of US states to test self-driving cars. Currently, however, there are no true hand-free cars on the road, as the New York Times noted.
Musk compared riding in a Model S in fully enabled hand-free mode to being a pilot in a jet that's flying on autopilot. He said that hands-free doesn't mean that the driver is checked out of monitoring the vehicle's performance.
I've tested out several "adaptive" cruise-control systems on various vehicles now in the market. These aren't hands-free systems – but it wouldn't be a tremendous stretch to add that feature. Generally speaking, these system work remarkably well.
The biggest hurdle to semi-autonomous cars, Tesla's and others', filling our highways (not city streets, as this environment is too unpredictable for vehicle sensors) is convincing regulators that hand-free driving is safe. So it remains to be seen if a more capable Tesla autopilot mode, when it does arrive, will actually be something that drivers can use.
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