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Tesla autonomy
A graphic shows an overhead view of a Tesla vehicle with the field of view for sensors installed on the car. (Credit: Tesla Motors)

Billionaire Elon Musk doubled down on Tesla Motors’ autonomous driving features today, saying that every vehicle produced from now on will offer the option of full self-driving capability. But that capability won’t be turned on immediately.

“The foundation is on board to bring full autonomy,” the Tesla CEO told reporters during a teleconference.

Tesla expanded on the autonomous features in a blog posting:

“We are excited to announce that, as of today, all Tesla vehicles produced in our factory – including Model 3 – will have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver. Eight surround cameras provide 360-degree visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors complement this vision, allowing for detection of both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system. A forward-facing radar with enhanced processing provides additional data about the world on a redundant wavelength, capable of seeing through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead.

“To make sense of all of this data, a new onboard computer with more than 40 times the computing power of the previous generation runs the new Tesla-developed neural net for vision, sonar and radar processing software. Together, this system provides a view of the world that a driver alone cannot access, seeing in every direction simultaneously and on wavelengths that go far beyond the human senses.

Model S and Model X vehicles with this new hardware are already in production, and customers can purchase one today.”

The hardware won’t be activated for drivers yet. Tesla said that the autonomous-driving system would first be calibrated “using millions of miles of real-world driving” to make sure it’s safe.

During the calibration process, the newly produced cars will lack some of the features currently available on Tesla vehicles with Autopilot – such as automatic emergency breaking, collision warning, lane holding and active cruise control.

“As these features are robustly validated, we will enable them over-the-air, together with a rapidly expanding set of entirely new features,” Tesla said.

The Autopilot system became the subject of controversy in May, when a Tesla Model S driver was killed in a collision with a truck on a Florida highway. Tesla acknowledged that the car’s vision system misinterpreted the truck’s visual profile as its driver was making a left turn.

Musk and other Tesla executives insist that Autopilot increases automotive safety if it’s used properly. Today, Musk leveled harsh criticism at journalists who have raised questions about self-driving cars.

“If, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people,” he said.

Nevertheless, Tesla has emphasized that drivers shouldn’t take their hands off the wheel or stop paying attention while the Autopilot system is engaged, and the company recently tweaked its vehicles’ software to address that issue.

Experts on automation generally rate Tesla’s cars as providing SAE Level 2 autonomy – that is, partial automation with the expectation that the driver will retain full control.

In August, Ford Motor Co. said it would offer Level 4 autonomy on a high-volume production vehicle by 2021. Level 4 means the car can handle all aspects of driving as long as it sticks to well-defined conditions.

Today, Musk said Tesla’s cars would have the hardware for Level 5 autonomy, which means they would theoretically be capable of driving themselves all the time. And he promised that Tesla would demonstrate a fully autonomous trip from Los Angeles to New York by the end of 2017.

Musk said enabling full autonomy would add $8,000 to the price of each car. Current base price for Tesla’s vehicles are $66,000 for the Model S, $74,000 for the Model X, and $35,000 for the yet-to-be-built Model 3.

Tesla’s website actually offers two options for autonomous driving: Enhanced Autopilot, which is expected to be rolled out over-the-air in December, subject to regulatory approval; and full self-driving capability, which has an indeterminate timetable.

Musk is known for minimizing the challenges and the timetables associated with his projects, ranging from SpaceX’s launch schedule to Tesla’s production schedule. Time will tell whether that’s the case for fully autonomous vehicles as well.

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