Five Things You Need to Know About Tesla’s Auto-Pilot Features and the Tesla Model S

As we told you on Thursday, it’s now official: every new Tesla Model S luxury electric sedan to come off Tesla’s production line in Fremont, California from now on will be fitted with an array of sensors and enhancements that make it possible for your Model S to one day drive itself down the road for you.

Tesla's self-driving -- or auto-pilot -- hardware is pretty impressive. But here's how the features will roll out.

Tesla’s self-driving — or auto-pilot — hardware is pretty impressive. But here’s how the features will roll out.

Announced at the same time as the all-new dual-motor Tesla Model S 60D, Tesla Model S 85D and Tesla Model S P85D models, the self-driving features will gradually be introduced over the coming years to help Tesla remain at the forefront of electric car and autonomous driving technology. But just what can the Tesla Model S do today, and what will it do in the future? And how will the features be rolled out?

To help you, here are five things that we’ve learned from in-depth discussions with Tesla’s UK and Ireland Country director Georg Ell that we think will better explain Tesla’s plans to bring autonomous driving technology to the masses.

1) Every Model S being made includes the necessary hardware

As we rightly surmised last week long before Tesla’s official announcement was made, Tesla has been quietly producing Model S cars capable of running Tesla’s auto-pilot software for a few weeks, complete with redesigned steering and braking systems, front-facing camera, front-facing radar and 360-degree ultrasonic sonar already fitted.

Every new Tesla Model S will have autonomous driving hardware fitted (Photo: Teslamotorsclub user @Weeogg)

Every new Tesla Model S will have autonomous driving hardware fitted (Photo: Teslamotorsclub user @Weeogg)

But what you might not have known is the fact that every single Tesla Model S — regardless of its trim package and options — is being built with the necessary hardware for autonomous-driving features to be activated at a later date. From an entry-level Tesla Model S with no option boxes ticked to a fully-specced P85 model with every conceivable extra, every Model S for the past two weeks to roll off Tesla’s production line has been quietly fitted with Tesla’s new self-driving hardware, meaning they can be given new autonomous driving capabilities by Tesla in the standard over-the-air update system Tesla has used to add everything from creep mode to mobile phone key functionality to existing Model S cars.

2) Lane Keep Assist and Speed Assist are active now — on every new Model S

The first of Tesla’s autonomous drive technologies — Lane Keep Assist and Speed Assist — are available on every new Tesla Model S that rolls off the production line in Fremont. The first uses the front-facing camera and radar sensor to keep the Tesla Model S in the centre of the lane, and can follow the curves of the road without drifting. Unlike some systems — where the driver is required to hold onto the steering wheel to keep the system activated, it’s possible to take your hands off the wheel without causing the Lane Keep Assist system to deactivate.

Speed Assist uses the camera mounted behind the rear-view mirror to recognise and reads speed limits from road signs and adjust the car’s speed appropriately.

Because these two features are required in certain markets and Tesla views them as active safety technology rather than autonomous driving technology, both features are standard and active on any Model S, regardless of the trim level.

3) More advanced features will come with subsequent software updates

Tesla autonomous drive features will be activated in over-the-air updates.

Tesla autonomous drive features will be activated in over-the-air updates.

Although all new Tesla Model S cars now have the necessary hardware to enable a whole raft of autonomous driving or auto-pilot features — including the scenario Elon Musk described on Thursday evening where a car could drive itself from the garage and meet you at the front door — Tesla won’t be switching all of its auto pilot features on in one go.

Instead, as the features are tested and proven — and more importantly as legislation in the Tesla’s key markets adjusts to make auto-pilot features legal — Tesla will make them available through a series of software updates sent to each and every Tesla Model S in the same over-the-air format as previous Tesla updates.

4) Tesla is making some autopilot functionality a ‘premium’ feature

While Tesla’s basic autonomous safety technology will be made available to all Tesla Model S customers whose cars have the necessary hardware fitted, regardless of their trim level, Tesla has said that full autopilot capabilities will be made a premium feature, available for free to those who have the optional $4,250 tech package.

In other words, while basic functionality like Lane Keep Assist and Speed Assist will be included as standard, more advanced autopilot features — we presume ones which let the car drive itself for an extended period of time with the driver only intervening in an emergency — will be offered to those who opt for the tech package at time of purchase. So if you want your Tesla Model S to be able to drive itself in the future, the best bet is to ensure you order the tech package.

Sadly, you won't be able to retro-fit older cars with the technology.

Sadly, you won’t be able to retro-fit older Model S cars with auto-pilot technology.

5) Tesla isn’t offering retrofits

Like the Model S Panoramic glass roof and rear-facing child seats, Tesla says the autonomous driving hardware can’t be added after the car has been built at the factory, meaning that those customers with pre-autonomous Model S cars can’t have the hardware and software fitted to their cars.

That’s partly due to the complexity associated with retrofitting such a large amount of additional hardware, and partly because Tesla has dramatically redesigned the Model S steering, braking and electronics systems to make use of the new auto-pilot hardware. In order to fully retrofit an existing Model S with autonomous features, a customer’s car would have to essentially be rebuilt.

For that reason, if you’re an existing Tesla Model S customer who wants the new features, you’ll have to be content with trading your older Model S in for a new one.

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  • Dennis Pascual

    As soon as I finished the test drive of the auto pilot enabled P85D last Thursday, the Spice Girls song “Really Really Want” popped in my head. I even wrote a posting on my blog – http://pascual.co/ActiveE/2014/10/less-than-a-year-and-already-wanting-the-new-model-s/ nnnAlas, still waiting on Tesla to provide me with a value for my trade-in (around 23,000 miles NOW in month 11 of ownership) Model S85.nnnChances are, it will be several years before we pull the trigger. Have to amortize the initial purchase of the Model S, I am apt to think