Tesla announces fully self-driving cars

SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla Motors announced Wednesday that its electric cars will be the first in the nation to all be fitted with the hardware they need to drive themselves.

CEO Elon Musk announced Wednesday that the automaker's Model S, X and forthcoming Model 3 sedan will start being outfitted with "the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver."

That constitutes full Level 5 autonomy, which doesn't require any driver involvement. That's the ultimate goal for a range of automakers and tech companies, including Google, Ford and Volvo, which have vowed to produce such self-driving vehicles by 2021.

Musk did not say exactly when such technology would be consumer-ready, although he did say regulatory hurdles would have to be vaulted first.

"It's not up to us, it's up to the regulators, and we hope things don't become balkanized and different in every state," he said. "It's a question of what the public and regulators think is appropriate. The system will always be operating in 'shadow mode,' though, so we can gather a lot of sophisticated data to show where software could have acted or not acted."

This next-generation of Tesla's Autopilot, as it calls the partial self-driving feature it has in the cars now, will have eight surround cameras that provide 360 degree visibility at up to 250 meters of range. There are also 12 updated ultrasonic sensors that can detect both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the existing Autopilot system.

"It’s all Tesla Vision software, we're not using any third party software for the vision procession," Musk said on a conference call with reporters. "It’s our neural net."

Musk was upset with the media about focusing on the few accidents that may have been related to Autopilot. "If you're dissuading people from autonomous driving, you're killing people," he said, referring to the million-plus people who die world-wide die in cars due to human error.

As for the details of the technology, Tesla says in a statement that it will have "forward-facing radar with enhanced processing provides additional data about the world on a redundant wavelength, capable of seeing through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead."

Musk said a Tesla automobile would soon amount to being "a supercomputer in a car," referencing new vision, sonar and radar processing software that is run by a computing system 40 times more powerful than what Tesla first introduced.

Musk said consumers would have two options when buying a Tesla. "You should be able to go from freeway onramp to exit and maneuver with enhanced Autopilot, then there's full self-driving which will take care of much more complex environments," he said.

Michael Harley, analyst for Kelley Blue Book, felt that assembling an array of tech that can pull off autonomous driving isn't the tough part. "The most critical piece of the puzzle, which is missing from Tesla’s announcement, is the car-to-car communication that ensures full Level 4 autonomous riding is safe for passengers and pedestrians alike," he said.

New York University professor and The Sharing Economy author Arun Sundararajan was impressed by Musk's bold move, but remained concerned that society at large would put the brakes on making fully autonomy a reality for quite some time.

"Until we figure out all the edge cases and train the cars to deal with them, this regulatory path will be slow," he said. "Sure, federal regulations will set standards for the brain of the car, but each city, state and local government can dictate what is on its roads. And cultural acceptance comes not just from the experience of the person driving, but the experience of the others on the road. We have to get comfortable not just with being in these cars, but having them around us, on our streets, near our schools."

Tesla shares (TSLA) closed up 2% Wednesday, and trading was flat after hours.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava @marcodellacava


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