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Image: Tesla Summon in action
A Tesla Model S owner issues a command using the key fob to have the car back itself out of the garage. (Credit: James Majerus vis YouTube)

Over the weekend, Tesla car owners picked up a new superpower: A feature called Summon can command the Model S or Model X car to drive itself for parking or pickup.

It’s part of Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s drive to make the company’s automobiles fully autonomous within the next couple of years.

“In two years, you’ll be able to summon your car from across the country,” Musk told reporters during a Sunday conference call. “If your car is in New York and you are in Los Angeles, it will find its way to you.”

We’re not there yet, though. The current version of Summon is set up so that the car learns how to open the garage door and back itself out to where you want to get in. Or put itself back in the garage when you issue the command.

The latest update, version 7.1, also lets you issue a command with your smartphone or key fob to have the car drive itself into a tight parking spot after you get out, or pull itself out before you get in.

“During this Beta stage of Summon, we would like customers to become familiar with it on private property,” Tesla said in a blog posting that spread the news. “Eventually, your Tesla will be able to drive anywhere across the country to meet you, charging itself along the way. It will synch with your calendar to know exactly when to arrive.”

For now, you need to be near the car to use Summon – but Musk said Tesla cars will eventually pull themselves into charging stations equipped with those “snakebot” power cords to juice themselves up as they drive cross-country.

Between now and then, the cars will need to be equipped with more sensors and other safety hardware, Musk acknowledged. Also, each state would have to allow widespread autonomous driving – which would be no small feat to accomplish by 2018.

The latest update also adds some limitations to AutoSteer, the feature that lets the car go into autopilot. From now on, the car won’t exceed the speed limit by more than 5 mph on residential streets or roads without a center divider. That’s meant to address concerns about having speeding Teslas on autopilot.

Although autonomous driving has raised safety concerns, there also have been cases in which autonomous features saved the day – including a well-known case last October in which a Seattle-area Uber driver said the collision avoidance system on his Tesla Model S prevented a crash on State Route 99.

Such features are quickly becoming widely available, not only on Tesla models but on other makes as well.

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