Want A Self Driving Car? Tesla Has You Covered

As of October 19, every Tesla built will have all the hardware needed for true Level 5 autonomous driving baked in. The company announced on Wednesday that the new hardware include 8 cameras, 12 upgraded ultrasonic sensors with double the range of the former units, a forward looking radar unit that uses redundant wavelengths to detect what the car ahead of the car ahead is doing, and an onboard computer with 40 times more processing power than the unit used up to this point by Tesla. Not only is all this technological goodness included in all Tesla automobiles built from now on, it will be part of the upcoming Model 3 as well.

Tesla Autopilot 2 for self driving car

Tesla is famous for using its customers as beta testers. The new hardware will just be along for the ride for a while as the new cars gather data from real world driving. It took Tesla a year to finally activate the software for Autopilot 1 after it started installing the hardware needed on the Model S in October of 2014. Whether the Autopilot system is active or not, every Tesla so equipped vacuums up data from every mile driven and shares it with the Tesla mothership in Palo Alto. There, Tesla engineers use that data to verify system performance and craft updates.

Autopilot 2 will not have all the functionality of Autopilot 1, at least not initially. The company will need to get some feedback from real world driving to calibrate the new system first. Musk promises the first updates will roll out in December with more coming every few months after that. Eventually, AP 2 will offer features not available in the current system. The company says when fully functional, it will “match speed to traffic conditions, keep within a lane, automatically change lanes without requiring driver input, transition from one freeway to another, exit the freeway when your destination is near, self-park when near a parking spot and be summoned to and from your garage.”

That is all really swell stuff, to be sure, but the icing on the cake is that every new Tesla built going forward will have all the hardware and computing power it needs to be a fully autonomous Level 5 self driving car. When will that glorious day arrive? That is not entirely up to Tesla. Level 5 systems will require regulatory approval where AP 1 did not. Regulators basically treated the first version of Autopilot as a glorified cruise control system. At least they did until Joshua Brown was killed last May on a Florida highway. Not so with AP2.

Tesla will need massive amounts of data collected during real world driving to convince regulators the cars are safe to use even if there is no input whatsoever from a human driver. As soon as the new cars get into the hands of actual drivers, that data collection will begin. The new sensors will be active in “shadow mode” at all times while the cars are being driven. While the sensors are present in all new cars now, Autopilot 2 will be a $5,000 option if enabled at the factory, $6,000 if activated later.

Regulators may not move as quickly as Elon Musk prefers. There seems little doubt he would like it if the very first Model 3 off the assembly line was also the very first Level 5 self driving car in the world. That will be in a little more than a year from now. If so, Tesla will be years ahead of the competition — again. No wonder Tesla expects to sell 500,000 cars a year while General Motors would be happy with 30,000 Chevy Bolt sales.

What is left unsaid is that Tesla is still the only company that regularly updates its cars wirelessly, the only company with a large and expanding proprietary charging network, the only company that does not have annual model year changes, and the only company that sells direct to consumers without dealers acting as middlemen. Tesla is doing more than disrupting the car business. It is standing it on its head. The mood in automotive board rooms this morning must be glum. No one, it seems, has an answer for Elon Musk and Tesla.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.