All new Tesla cars are now being equipped with the necessary hardware to enable fully autonomous driving modes.
Tesla now fits its cars with eight surround cameras to provide 360deg visibility around the car of up to 250 metres away. These are accompanied by 12 updated ultrasonic sensors, allowing for detection of both hard and 'soft' objects at nearly twice the distance of the previous system. Additionally, a forward-facing radar that can see through heavy rain, fog, dust and even underneath the car ahead has been added to complete the spectrum of vision.
However, while the hardware is fitted to Model X and Model S cars rolling off the production line now, it can't be fully used until the required software is finished and added to the models' operating systems via over-the-air updates. The system now benefits from 1.3 billion miles of Autopilot testing data.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet last month that the software should make it to production cars in late 2017, meaning we could be a year away from full Autopilot technology, which Tesla claims will enable passengers to travel from New York to Los Angeles without touching the steering wheel.
Tesla is yet to confirm details, but the limited information it has revealed includes that the Autopilot technology, while significantly more effective than the current system, will still largely be limited to operating on highways and multi-lane roads. The new software is likely to mark the most significant step towards a fully autonomous vehicle, though.
Recent software upgrades for current cars
The new software is part of the v8.0 update and comes with a range of improvements to the Autopilot system, allowing the cars' radar systems to register far more objects than before. "The new software enables the car to initiate braking no matter what the object is – especially if it's large, metallic and dense... It could be a truck crossing the road, a road sign, it could even be a spaceship or a pile of junk metal," said Musk (pictured below).
No additional hardware is required for the v8.0 improvements, so all radar-equipped Model S and Model X cars built in the past two years will benefit from the wirelessly downloadable update. Speaking to Autocar in the late summer, Musk confirmed to Autocar that the update would be applied to models worldwide, including those in the UK.
Once downloaded, the cars will not only recognise more objects on the road, but will also be able to use something Musk calls 'radar echo'. This technology bounces radar off the road and underneath the car in front and then back off objects ahead of that. Musk said: "Now, if the car in front of you suddenly swerves, we've already seen the obstacle in front."