Last October, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk triumphantly unveiled two major revisions of the Tesla Model S electric car. The first — the introduction of an optional dual-motor, all-wheel drive configuration for the Model S — not only introduced the world to the fabled Insane button for the first time, but also presented a car which had better handling, overall fuel economy and acceleration than Tesla’s single motor Model S variants.
The second was the announcement that every Tesla Model S to roll off Tesla’s Fremont production line would now come with the hardware it needed to one day enable auto-pilot semi-autonomous driving functionality via Tesla’s over-the-air update system.
At the time, Musk laid out a road map for Tesla’s auto-pilot rollout, indicating that we’d see the first glimpses of the autonomous capabilities of the redesigned Model S some time in the next year in Tesla’s next major revision of its in-car operating system, Version 7.0
On Friday, Musk divulged that revision is close to being released using his preferred social media network of choice, Twitter.
Almost ready to release highway autosteer and parallel autopark software update
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 31, 2015
The latter of the two functions — parallel auto park — would we presume work in a similar way to the various autonomous parallel and reverse parking functions offered on a variety of cars today from luxury sedans through to family hatchbacks.
But while the former sounds very much like lane departure warning or lane keep assist, there are some differences as we understand it which would make the Tesla Model S a pioneer of next-generation auto-steer technology.
First, unlike lane keep assist or lane departure warning systems, most of which require the driver to keep hold of the steering wheel at all times, Tesla’s system would make it possible for drivers to let go of the steering wheel while on the highway. The car would then follow the chosen lane, keeping a safe distance from the car in front and obeying the speed limits. In addition, sensors around the car detect any impending collisions or hazards and take evasive action as required.
Despite not requiring the driver to hold the wheel at all times however, Tesla’s system wouldn’t automatically change lanes to overtake a slower vehicle. Instead, it would follow the slower vehicle at a safe distance, waiting for the driver to initiate an overtaking manoeuvre.
To execute an overtake, drivers will be required to move the indicator stalk as they would if signalling while in manual control mode, signalling to the car that they wish it to safely overtake. The car will then change lanes automatically if it is safe to do so with the reverse process required from the driver to move the car back into the original lane after the Model S has safely passed the slower vehicle.
We should note at this point however, that the functionality being talked about isn’t full autonomous vehicle behaviour. Indeed, while the driver may not need to touch the steering wheel in the same way that they may not need to touch the pedals if cruise control is engaged, drivers will still be required under law to keep themselves alert and ready to take over at all times.
Reading newspapers, books, or texting friends while the car does the steering for you will still remain against the law for now in most — if not all — markets.
In a recent press call with journalists to announce the introduction of Tesla’s new Ludicrous acceleration mode, 90 kilowatt-hour battery pack upgrade and introduction of the single-motor 70kWH Model S, Musk disclosed that he himself was testing new beta versions of Tesla’s next-generation operating system every few days.
Using it for his regular drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Musk had said that the only challenge left was improvements to help the car’s computers discern the difference between lane markings and skid marks on the road as well as tracking faded white line markings.
His subsequent tweets on Friday indicate Tesla is progressing nicely with that challenge, with the only problem now being what he referred to as low-contrast lane markings at dusk.
Final corner case is dealing with low contrast lane markings (faded white on grey concrete) while driving into the sun at dusk
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 31, 2015
“The car will learn over time, but there is a [minimum] caliber of starting quality,” he continued.
While Musk didn’t officially update the estimated launch date for the next-generation of Tesla’s operating system for its cars, we note that Tesla’s original estimate for September 2015 means that we should see Tesla start to roll out this important update — along with an updated user interface for all autopilot-enabled cars — some time in the next four weeks.
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