Starting October 19, every Tesla that comes off the assembly line at the Fremont, California, factory will be equipped with what the company calls its second-generation hardware package. The cars all have 8 cameras, 12 enhanced ultrasonic sensors, and a forward-looking radar. Tesla says the hardware will permit the cars to utilize what it calls Autopilot 2.0. In addition to the autonomous lane changing feature, adaptive cruise control, self parking, and Summon features in the original, Autopilot 2.0 will allow cars to transition from one interstate to another seamlessly without driver input. It also upgrades automatic emergency braking and enhances the range of operations Summon can perform.
But wait, there’s more. Any Tesla with the second-generation hardware installed will be able to function as a Level 5 fully autonomous vehicle once regulators give their approval to self-driving cars. All that it needs for that to happen is for Tesla to push an over-the-air software update to the cars. Regulatory approval is 1 to 3 years off and will probably vary by country, but whenever authorities give the signal to go ahead, Tesla cars will be ready.
“Our goal is, we’ll to be able to do a demonstration drive of full autonomy all the way from LA to New York,” says Elon Musk. He claims a Tesla will make a fully autonomous journey (with a human driver on board to keep the legal beagles from going berserk) sometime in 2017. It will go “from home in LA, to dropping you off in Times Square, and then the car will go park itself.”
On Friday, November 18, Tesla released a video of a Model X with the second-generation hardware package driving along the roads surrounding company headquarters in Silicon Valley. The video offers us insight into what the Autopilot system “sees” as it drives. A series of colorful boxes and lines focus on real-world objects detected by the sensors in stunning detail. The Model X is able to individually identify obstacles in the travel lane ahead from oncoming obstacles in other lanes. It can also distinguish road signs from traffic lights — something that first-generation Autopilot cannot do. The refresh rate of the system is an other worldly 2,100 frames per second.
Using what the company describes as the Tesla Neural Net, vehicles equipped with second-generation hardware have a 360 degree view. They see the world around the vehicle with a clarity far beyond what the human eye is capable of.
While waiting for regulators to give a thumbs up to autonomous driving, Tesla is operating the new system in what it calls “shadow mode.” It collects data just as if the system were live, but exerts no actual control over the car as it drives. That data is shared with Tesla software engineers, who use it to compare how human drivers respond to real-world driving situations with how the computer would respond if allowed to.
That comparison process will allow engineers to hone and refine the Autopilot software. It will also provide data that could help persuade regulators that autonomous driving is safe — or at least safer than the majority of human drivers.
Elon Musk maintains that someday self-driving cars will be as common as automatic elevators. The only thing is, “someday” means next month to Elon but a decade or more in the future to most regulators. But Musk, as usual, will not be denied. He is a force of nature. There is little doubt that when self-driving cars arrive, it will be years sooner than anyone thought possible, thanks to the indomitable Mr. Musk.