Tesla Model S drivers are going to wake up to something a little different Thursday: Their car will be able to drive itself. Well, sort of.
Tesla is rolling out version 7.0 of its software, and with it new autopilot features that allow the car to stay in its lane, change lanes, and parallel park itself. The updated Model S is not entirely autonomous, you still have to keep your hands on the wheel, but the new features aim to make driving the vehicle both easier and safer.
In the works for about a year, the highlight of the update is the new Autosteer feature. This is designed specifically for highway driving, and when engaged keeps the car in its lane. When you need to change lanes, you flip your turn signal and the car will move over on its own when it determines it’s safe to do so. So we’re not quite ready to simply enter an address and let the car handle everything, but it’s a glimpse into out autonomous future.
Tesla invited a few journalists to its Palo Alto headquarters Wednesday to test-drive the new features. Trying it out is admittedly a bit unnerving. Driving on highway 280, I found myself reaching for the wheel when turns in the road appeared, something the car was capable of handling on its own, and it did with ease. Lane changes bring up a similar semi-anxious feeling, but happen more smoothly. The Tesla employee I rode with has been testing Autosteer for several weeks, and says that feeling fades fairly quickly once you start to trust the car. He uses the feature during his daily commute, and says it’s made the drive much less stressful and allows him to enjoy the scenery when driving rather than focusing on traffic.
While Autosteer gives your car control, that doesn’t mean you can take your hands off the wheel. If you do for more than a few seconds, the car will first warn you with a chime, and then eventually start to slow down until it comes to a complete stop. Not exactly something you want to happen on a busy highway. You can also cancel Autosteer by pressing the brake pedal or grabbing the wheel, something I found myself accidentally doing during my test-drive when I started to get nervous.
That “hands-on” detail is an important one. CEO Elon Musk emphasizes that the update is a public beta. “We say keep your hands on the wheel because it’s very important to exercise caution at this early stage,” he said during a press conference on Wednesday. Musk acknowledges that eventually we’ll not only be able to take our hands off the wheel, but there won’t be a steering wheel to begin with. That’s similar to what Google, one of the early leaders in this market, is showing off with the newest version of its self-driving car. That car has a start button, and controls for the climate and windows, but no other controls.
Every car made by Tesla since late September of last year (when Tesla started adding the necessary sensors) will start to get this update overnight, as will the upcoming Model X. And Musk believes this is only the beginning.
“This version doesn’t take into account stop signs and stop lights, but a future version will,” Musk noted. Also on the agenda: adding the ability for the car to put itself to bed–that is, arrive in the garage safely, and close the garage door–something Musk thinks will arrive in version 7.1 of the software.
One thing the car can already do with this update: park itself. Once you arrive at your destination, the car can control its speed and steering, and squeeze into that parallel-parking space with no work from the driver.
Other features arriving with the update include new and redesigned instrument panel apps, improvements to the car’s Hill Start Assist (now Vehicle Hold), traffic-aware cruise control improvements, and improved side collision warnings. An upgrade from the vehicles’s previous Blind Spot Warning, the Model S has an increased sensing range, and will let you know when objects are near.
Over time the car will also improve. “The more miles that are driven the better it will get,” says Musk. “People should see the car improve with every passing week.”
That means it could have trouble navigating, say, a tricky off ramp this week, but be able to handle it soon.