Tesla Motors is planning to demonstrate a Tesla vehicle traveling cross country in fully autonomous mode by the end of next year.
During a conference call with reporters late Wednesday announcing the fully autonomous capable hardware, CEO Elon Musk said his goal is to demonstrate a vehicle traveling in fully autonomous mode from Los Angeles to New York by the end of 2017. Autonomous features will be introduced gradually over a period of time, and will be based on what Musk called “Hardware 2.”
The software for reaching the fully self-driving mode will need to be validated, and the new system still need to be approved by regulators. Tesla expects to reach those milestones in time, which Musk said would be much safer than cars currently on roads driven by humans.
“It will take us some time into the future to complete validation of the software and to get the required regulatory approval, but the important thing is that the foundation is laid for the cars to be fully autonomous at a safety level we believe to be at least twice that of a person, maybe better,” Musk said Wednesday.
High-end Model S and Model X vehicles equipped with hardware for full autonomy are already in production, and the upcoming Model 3 will have it as well, Musk said. Previously built vehicles without the new hardware won’t have the fully autonomous features.
The new hardware will initially lack some capabilities available in the semi-autonomous Autopilot system, including automatic emergency braking, collision warning, lane holding, and active cruise control. Those and other features will be enabled as the company works to calibrate the new system, Tesla said.
That should take two-to-three months, Musk said. Beyond that point, the company plans to upgrade its autonomous capabilities every two or three months, he said.
Tesla announced yesterday that the new system will provide eight surround cameras with 360 degrees of visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range, compared to one camera in previous Tesla vehicles. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors complement this vision, allowing for detection at nearly twice the distance of the prior system. A forward-facing radar with enhanced processing provides additional data through whatever weather and lighting conditions the vehicle is traveling through.
“It’s extremely impressive where they’ve gone, but if the technology can’t be used it seems like a moot point for most people,” said Jessica Caldwell, an industry analyst with Edmunds.com. “It’s hard to get excited about something you can’t do, and you can’t really utilize this.”
Tesla used a similar strategy to introduce the semi-autonomous Autopilot, rolling out the hardware before the software was complete. Tesla turned on the feature in late 2015 for its vehicles built after October 2014, using the company’s ability to update its vehicles’ software over the air.
Musk said on the conference call that customers will be offered two options when buying a Tesla vehicle. They’ll be able to choose either fully autonomous mode or an enhanced Autopilot mode that has improved cameras and computing power to perform more complex maneuvers, such as navigating freeway on- and off-ramps.
Tesla’s announcement comes after a period of intense scrutiny over the company’s Autopilot system. Transportation agencies in Germany, Holland, and the U.S. are investigating the safety implications from a fatal crash that occurred in May in Florida, and whether the name Autopilot should be allowed in marketing materials.
Musk expressed his frustration with the large amount of attention received by Autopliot crashes relative to automobile crashes in general. He said that a negative story casting negative light on using autonomous vehicles was effectively “killing people” since the technology made driving safer.
“It does not reflect well upon the media,” he said.
Having a fully autonomous car on the road by 2018 would put Tesla ahead of other automakers racing to develop their own self-driving technologies. Ford and BMW have said they’ll have fully autonomous vehicles available in 2021. Google has a fully autonomous test fleet on public roadways, but hasn’t given a timetable or specifics on the technology it will be offering.