Commentary

Software Update Will Allow Tesla Model S To Drive Itself To Malibu This Summer

“Wheredja learn to drive?” will begin its road trip to the Archive of Quaint Phrases this summer if Tesla Motors has its way. CEO Elon Musk said yesterday that a software update to the Model S will allow it to drive itself on highways or private property as soon as three months from now.

“The feature will be pretty basic — keeping the car within its lane at an appropriate speed — so it’s no big leap,” writesWired’s Alex Davis. “Every Model S built since October has the radar, sonar and other hardware needed to pull this off, and the ability to combine all that data with navigation, GPS, and real-time traffic systems. All that’s missing is the software needed to tie it all together.”

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But, as several stories about Musk’s conference call with reporters point out, also missing is a clear picture of what the legality of self-driving automobiles is at this point of development.

“Some industry experts said serious questions remain about whether such autonomous driving is actually legal and are skeptical that Model S owners who try to use autopilot would not run afoul of current regulations,” writes Aaron M. Kessler in the New York Times.

“There’s a reason other automakers haven’t gone there,” Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer tells Kessler. “Best-case scenario, it’s unclear. If you’re an individual that starts doing it, you’d better hope nothing goes wrong.” Brauer adds: “It’s not just a philosophical reason why automakers haven’t allowed their vehicles to drive themselves. There’s a legal reason, too.”

Several other automakers are also well along with the technology.

“General Motors Co has said it plans to offer a similar set of hands-free driving features next year on its new Cadillac CT6 sedan,” reports Reuters’ Paul Lienert. “Other automakers and suppliers are working on similar automated systems.”

Mercedes Benz, for one, unveiled the “F 015 Luxury in Motion” self-driving concept car, “which will push the boundaries of opulence,” as “Yasmita” puts it on Tnerd.com.

At this point, Tesla is limiting the self-drive option to open road trips like Seattle to San Francisco.

“To Musk, highway speeds are not the challenge; the complexity of the landscape is,” PCWorld’s Mark Hachman writes in reporting on Musk’s appearance Tuesday at the Nvidia GPU Technology Conference (GTC). 

“Highway cruise is easy, low speed is easy, it’s medium that's hard,” Musk told his interviewer, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang. “Being able to recognize what you’re seeing and make the right decision in that suburban environment in that 10 mph to 50 mph zone is the challenging portion.”

Musk also announced a feature to reduce driver’s “range anxiety” yesterday.

“An imminent software update will introduce a new Range Assurance application, which will run constantly in the background … communicating in real time with Tesla's network of superchargers and destination chargers,” reports Chris Welch on The Verge. “This makes it effectively impossible for a Model S driver to run out of range unintentionally,” Musk proclaimed.

The software update also adds “automatic emergency braking, which will engage in the event of an unavoidable collision. There's also now a side-collision warning (the Model S already has front and rear collision warnings),” writes Pete Pachal on Mashable.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey earlier this week, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill that allows Tesla to sell cars directly to consumers — “one of the few states to have reversed itself on this front,” observes Brian Wong in the Washington Post.

“We've written before about why Tesla doesn't just work with the dealerships,” Wong continues [as have we, too] “— it has a lot to do with Musk wanting to maintain control of his brand. But that's made it difficult for Tesla to expand its sales in many states.”

It not just controlling the sale itself for Tesla; it’s what comes after.

“Unlike most of the auto industry’s upgrades, which are delivered to customers through an independent dealer network, Tesla is building on a sales and marketing philosophy that cuts out the middleman by sending the new software directly to its cars over their embedded wireless connections,” points out Mike Ramsey in the Wall Street Journal.

One intriguing “wrinkle” with the Tesla self-driving system, according to Chris Woodyard in USA Today: “Musk says the car will soon also be able to automatically pull itself in or out of a garage using just its sensors, even in the dark. Using their smartphones, drivers can ‘press (a) “summon” button, and your car will come and find you,’ Musk said. ‘Press that button again, and it will put the car in your garage.’”

When it can find a parking spot on the Upper West Side at 11 a.m. on weekdays other than Wednesday we’ll really be impressed.

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