Driverless cars are coming, but they might be closer than you think. Maybe just a software update away. Tesla has started rolling out a new version of the Model S firmware that makes the car almost completely autonomous. You can take your hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals, as well as allowing the car to park itself. That’s a pretty good start.
The software update will eventually hit about 50,000 Model S vehicles around the world, but drivers in North America appear to be getting it first. The laws around self-driving cars are still very vague, so the company is taking things slowly. For example, California (Tesla’s largest market) has special licensing requirements for fully autonomous cars. If a car can drive itself, the owner would have to deal with a lot of red tape.
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Tesla gets around the licensing requirements by requiring the driver to stay engaged — no naps on the way to work. While the car can drive itself, the human driver is required to touch the wheel every ten seconds to prevent the vehicle from slowing. It can handle highway driving as well stop-and-go, just as long as it can see the lanes. So, this system is best for when you have to reach across the car for something or you want to fiddle with the radio. It’s not going to take you from point A to B without your intervention. The automated parking thing is neat, but other cars have been doing that for some time.
According to Elon Musk, who has been testing the autonomous update in his car, it works best when there’s another car in front of it for the Tesla’s range finder to track, and where the lines on the street are clearly visible. It also doesn’t see signs or traffic lights, so you need to pay at least some attention. It doesn’t have the intelligent 3D mapping smarts of Google’s experimental self-driving cars. Tesla thinks it will be able to build a fully autonomous car in about three years, but the existing Model S will get more automated features in future software updates, too.