Welcome to the self-driving car revolution: Tesla releases Autopilot patch

A patch to put the Model S into self-driving mode is just a download away.

Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S sedan.

Credit: Flicker

It’s finally here.

The first publicly available, legal, and fully self-aware car is a reality. Tesla has released a software patch for existing Model S owners (and anyone who buys the car today). According to a company blog post, current owners just need to download the Tesla Version 7.0 patch. (Word is that it takes all night.)

This is the first time a production car has been able to stay in the lane by itself, adjust speed, and brake automatically on its own without driver intervention and for long periods of time. It’s particularly significant because Tesla beat out competitors like Cadillac and Ford, who have been working on similar tech, and also startups like Cruise Automation.

Many cars offer a mix of automated features, but not quite like this. Many cars use adaptive cruise control to adjust your speed automatically and brake, depending on the speed of the vehicle in front of you. This includes many Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and Infiniti cars, but even the Jeep Grand Cherokee. It’s also becoming common for the car to assist with steering and even keep you in the lane for short periods, although you usually have to grab the wheel after a minute.

The Volvo XC90 has a platooning mode that can mimic the movements of the car in front of you without requiring you to hold the steering wheel. It works for long periods of time -- in my tests, about ten minutes in heavy traffic. It’s severely limited by speed because it only works in traffic jams at lower speeds (but not to a full stop); it’s usually easier to just drive yourself.

The Model S is a different beast. The car already has ultrasonic sensors that can look around the car up to 16 feet. The Autopilot patch essentially activates those sensors to put the car in autonomous mode for steering, speed, and braking. When you use the turn signal, the car will move to the next lane (right or left) on its own. Update: A Tesla rep told me the collision avoidance system will gently steer you out of the path of a car coming into your lane. The car also does autonomous mode down to full stop and resume.

The sensors created a bubble of protection. The car stays in the lane without requiring that you hold the wheel, and that's the main selling point here.

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, has stated before that this mode would evolve. Like the XC90, it’s intended mostly for highway driving and not for downtown traffic. It requires clear lane markings, and you’ll likely only find those on a major highway. Also, a Tesla rep told me the car is not designed for making tight turns in a city on its own.

For now, it’s a major milestones because it means autonomous cars have finally gone legit. I’m eager to get my hands on one -- and then go hands-free for as long as possible.

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