On Thursday, at a big Tesla Motors event in Los Angeles, Elon Musk unveiled his latest much-hyped vehicle: the "D." On one level, the Tesla D is just a more powerful, all-wheel drive version of the company's existing Model S electric sedan.
But that wasn't all. Tesla also announced a slew of new "autopilot" features for all of its Model S versions. The vehicles will now come outfitted with an array of cameras, sensors, and software that give them vast new self-driving capabilities. Tesla cars will be able to change lanes on their own, obey speed-limit signs, and even park themselves.
Tesla's newest vehicles won't be completely autonomous. And they certainly won't come cheap — starting at around $70,000. But they do look like a major step toward a day when vehicles can drive themselves completely:
New Tesla D features: All-wheel drive and "autopilot"
A powerful new dual motor: The Tesla D is essentially an all-wheel drive version of the company's existing Model S electric sedan. The "D" here stands for "dual motor" — one for the front wheels, one for the back. This is something other luxury carmakers were already offering, and Tesla was catching up.
The dual-motor version will be significantly more powerful than the Model S, capable of going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a mere 3.2 seconds. It's also supposedly more efficient: Musk told USA Today that the Model D can travel an additional 10 miles on a single charge.
Autopilot: Then there's the "autopilot." Both the Tesla D and the regular Tesla S will now come with a variety of upgraded sensors — including an image-recognition camera, a 360-degree sonar system that can "see" its surroundings, and a long-range radar to recognize signs and pedestrians:
Every new Model S is Autopilot enabled. pic.twitter.com/KH9Mx7GF21— Tesla Motors (@TeslaMotors) October 10, 2014
Among other things, that equipment will allow Tesla's vehicles to be aware of other cars on the road, brake in emergencies, and automatically correct course if a driver veers out of his or her lane. Those features, granted, aren't entirely novel. Competitors like Ford and Toyota had already developed lane control and automatic braking for their luxury vehicles.
But Tesla's autopilot system will go even further than that. If the driver hits the turn signal on the highway, the car can look around for traffic and then change lanes automatically once all's clear. The vehicle can also automatically decelerate when it recognizes a change in speed limit.
Self-parking: On top of that, Tesla's cars will also be able to park themselves at home— the driver can get out and let the car do the rest of the work. (The electric car can't yet connect to a charger on its own, but Musk said Tesla's engineers were working on that one.) Drivers will also be able to "summon" their Tesla vehicles on their own property — the car can roll down the driveway autonomously and meet you at your door in the morning.
Here's a video demonstration of the car's autopilot capabilities from SlashGear:
All these features won't be cheap, however: The all-wheel drive "D" version of the Model S will start at $71,000. The base price for the top-of-the-line P85D will be $120,000 — about $14,000 more than the current S version.
Is this a step toward self-driving vehicles?
Futurists have long been dreaming about the day when cars can drive themselves — a technology that has the potential to reduce accidents, speed up traffic, and make commuting a far less hellish activity.
Putting more and more autonomous capabilities in a car — as Tesla is doing — is a step closer. Still, it's a massive leap from a car that can park itself to a car that can drive itself without human intervention, as Musk reportedly conceded at the LA event, according to Fox Business reporter Jo Ling Kent:
"This is still autopilot not autonomous..it's not at the level where you can fall asleep and arrive safely at destination." -Musk— Jo Ling Kent (@jolingkent) October 10, 2014
Currently, a number of auto companies are experimenting with self-driving vehicles in California, which has begun to allow road tests. But there are several different approaches here.
Google, for one, thinks that the way to do it is by creating a car that eliminates driver control altogether, rather than slowly adding autonomous capabilities over time. (There's an argument that switching back and forth between a computer driver and half-attentive human driver might actually be more dangerous than just letting the computer do all the work.) Tesla, for its part, seems to be focusing on adding incremental "autopilot" capacities.
The technology is still quite pricey, and the US is still a long ways away from making all the regulatory and licensing changes necessary to make self-driving cars a reality. But the technology is clearly getting better and better with each passing year.
Further reading on self-driving cars
15 ways that self-driving cars could transform our lives
Google is building real self-driving cars without steering wheels or pedals
Driverless cars will mean the end of mass car ownership
One big obstacle to self-driving cars? People are still scared of them.
Why trucks will drive themselves before cars do