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With New Software Rollout, Tesla Accelerates Toward Fully Self-Driving Cars

Musk: "I think it's going to change people's perception of the future quite rapidly."

Tesla Motors

In the race to build self-driving cars, Tesla, the electric vehicle manufacturer, has an edge over the traditional automakers: Tesla can upgrade its own software to its thousands of vehicles with a single, quick push. And next to the tech giants entering the race — Google, Uber, Apple — Tesla has a different edge: It has tons of its vehicles already on the road.

On Friday, Tesla is taking its biggest step in self-driving tech, releasing a software update to some of its fleet with four features for autonomous driving smarts. A year ago, Tesla introduced autopilot hardware to its newest Model S vehicles — digital cameras, radar and sonar that map a car’s surroundings and equip it to drive itself. The new software unlocks that potential for those cars as well as Tesla’s new Model X SUV launched last month.

“This is going to be quite a profound experience,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on a call with reporters on Wednesday. Several hundred drivers — and Musk himself, apparently — have been testing the feature for about a month.

“When I put friends of mine in the car and they see the car drive, they’re blown away,” he said. “I think it’s going to change people’s perception of the future quite rapidly.”

The software doesn’t convert the car to full autonomy, like Google’s vehicles roaming California and Texas. Instead, it lets drivers flip on several self-driving features: Auto steering, lane changing (flip on the turn signal and the car switches lanes on its own), parking and side-collision avoidance. Musk described the autopilot as converting a Tesla car into a “really good chauffeur.”

For industry observers, Tesla is seen as a quiet force in autonomous driving tech, a nascent sector set to boom. Several consider its advances in the field second only to Google. Tesla has, contrary to Google, pushed for a more incremental approach to autonomy: A gradual introduction of self-driving features that still let owners drive their luxury (and expensive) electric cars. Yet Musk lauded the fact that the autopilot feature enables Tesla vehicles to continuously improve at autonomy by sharing data across the fleet, similar to Google’s cars.

Musk did stress that the software is young, noting that Tesla is strongly encouraging its drivers to exercise caution with the self-driving features. Should an equipped car get in an accident, the driver is at fault, Musk said, answering a pernicious regulatory question that circulates around autonomous driving.

“We’re advising drivers to keep their hands on the wheel. The software — it’s very new,” he said. But he added: “In the long term, people won’t need hands on the wheel. And eventually there won’t be wheels.”

That eventuality could be within three years for Tesla, tech-wise, Musk said. However, he noted that regulatory hurdles will push it longer, reiterating what he told an audience last week.

About 50 people inside Tesla work on its autopilot software, with 100 more devoted to the hardware, Musk said. But the head of its autopilot R&D, Andrew Gray, departed for self-driving startup Cruise last month.

Tesla’s stock price has slid since its second-quarter earnings, which reported a loss of $184 million, or $1.45 per share, as the company’s vehicle output fell short of expectations. However, it released figures earlier this month that showed its new SUV release led to a 49 percent annual spike in sales. On Wednesday, Musk admitted that self-driving features are expensive, but said the company would recoup its losses from sales of vehicles that use the software.

The idiosyncratic exec also gave a peek inside his vision of a future. Does he imagine a future of fully autonomous cars, requiring no human driving whatsoever? That sounds “boring,” he replied.

“It might be something like ‘I, Robot,’ where you can switch from manual to autopilot,” Musk offered. “Maybe the steering wheel would come out of the dash. That’d be kind of cool.”

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