Update: Tesla’s link is now live. The original story continues below.
New Tesla Autopilot self-driving capabilities arrive Thursday with version 7 of Tesla’s software. It enhances the Model S’s ability to help drive the car on highways and assist with parallel parking. The interface on Tesla’s 17-inch center stack LCD will also have a “new look,” Tesla chairman Elon Musk says.
The download will take five days to roll out to the installed base of Tesla Model S sedans, Tesla says. It gives the Model S the same capabilities as the Tesla Model X SUV that began shipping Sept. 30 in very limited quantities. Not every autonomous driving feature is in the 7.0 release — for instance, valet mode car retrieval that parks and unparks your car in a garage with you outside the car.
Some exciting news this week: Tesla Version 7 software with Autopilot goes to wide release on Thursday!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 11, 2015
What Autopilot does now, in the future
With Autopilot, Tesla matches and possibly raises the offerings of the highest-end automakers. Along with some standard driver assist features, the Tesla Tech Package, it combines to provide full-range adaptive cruise control (Traffic Aware Cruise Control, TACC, in Tesla terminology) that is full range, down to 0 mph and back up to speed; blind spot detection; lane departure warning; automated lane change (initiated by the driver); and traffic sign recognition.
This week’s update is expected to included automated parallel and possibly head-in parking. The existing sensors give a Tesla the ability to pull into a narrow home garage, and back out, with the driver outside the car. A further extension might allow the ability to pull into a public parking garage and have it valet-parked on your behalf.
Musk has said a Tesla “will learn over time,” including adapting to the nature of how other cars are driven.
Autopilot embedded in recent Teslas, $2,500 turns it on
Since September 2014, Tesla embedded a forward-facing camera in the windshield mirror cluster, a radar in the front grille, and a dozen sonar sensors in the front and rear bumpers. If you aren’t sure you want the AutoPilot features, the hardware is still there and you make it work by paying the $2,500 Tech Package fee. That’s a huge advantage for Tesla over other automakers that today balk at spending $25-$50 to embed satellite radio in hopes some buyers will subscribe. It also means the Model S sedan and Model X crossover (image right) can be on equal footing for driver-assist features, as long as they have the same hardware sensors.
The Tesla auto-upgrade feature also requires an embedded cellular telematics modem, which is pretty much standard on high end cars from all automakers; even Ford’s Lincoln division is getting religion on that. Only General Motors’ OnStar drives onboard telematics down to to entry-level cars.
The auto-download-and-upgrade feature enables better technologies as they come available. That’s how a Tesla progresses from lane departure warning (when the car drifts over to lane marking) to lane keep assist (the car is steered back from the lane edge) to lane centering (the car stays within a few inches of the very center of the lane).
Some technologies would require additional sensors. Night vision offered on high-end German cars for about $2,000 requires a thermal imager. It’s now a useful tool because the ever-improving software can detect pedestrians, larger animals, and bicyclists; warn of their presence; and if US laws allowed it, turn and strobe (flash) the headlamps at the knees of pedestrians or animals close to the road.