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Tesla Has Begun Making All Its New Cars Self-Driving

Tesla has begun equipping all its new cars with self-driving hardware. Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO, tweeted Wednesday night that the new Tesla drives itself with no human input, using eight cameras, 12 ultrasonars, and radar. All this hardware is mounted so the technology is not visible to drivers.

The company's current slate of cars being built now, the Model S sedan and the Model X SUV, has the hardware that will eventually make full autonomy possible. Cars previously built don't have the new hardware and — this is the moment in the article where early adopters groan — Musk said in a tweet that retrofitting vehicles won't be possible.

This isn't the first time Tesla has tried self-driving. The company already has a software feature that allows for some semi-autonomous driving. Musk says he wants to leapfrog the car and tech industries and put a fully autonomous car on the road by 2018. Ford is just one of the automakers that say they will have a self-driving car on the road by 2021.

The new hardware will initially lack some capabilities of the feature called Autopilot, which includes automatic emergency braking, collision warning, lane holding and active cruise control. Those and other aspects will be enabled as the company works to calibrate the new system, reports Tim Higgins of the Wall Street Journal.

"The software that would make Tesla vehicles fully self-driving still needs to be validated, and the system hasn't been approved by regulators. The company expects to reach those milestones in time, ultimately leading to vehicles that Mr. Musk said would be significantly less dangerous than current cars.

" 'It will take us some time into the future to complete validation of the software and to get the required regulatory approval, but the important thing is that the foundation is laid for the cars to be fully autonomous at a safety level we believe to be at least twice that of a person, maybe better,' Mr. Musk told reporters on Wednesday."

What Tesla is proposing is a vehicle that has Level 4 autonomy. The Society of Automotive Engineers lists five stages of autonomy. The overwhelming majority of the cars on the road are at 0 or Level 1. Here's a quick cheat sheet:

  1. Driver Assistance — Systems such as lane assist, anti-lock brakes, even navigation systems
  2. Partial Automation — The car takes partial control but driver keeps hands on the wheel and eyes on the road
  3. Conditional Automation — The vehicle steers, accelerates and decelerates but the driver must be able to take control
  4. High Automation — When put into drive mode, the vehicle is in charge of all aspects of driving even if a human driver doesn't intervene
  5. Full Automation — Full-time performance by the vehicle

"It's a big step for the industry," says Akshay Anand, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book. "The question then becomes how it translates to the consumer," he adds.

Tesla introduced its Autopilot feature as essentially a test feature, in the same way this new hardware update is being marketed. The company has been criticized for moving too quickly in the autonomous realm, which is summed up by the WSJ's Higgins.

"However, some observers worry that the technology lulls drivers into complacency behind the wheel. Germany's Transportation Ministry has asked Tesla not to use the term Autopilot in ads describing the system and the California Department of Motor Vehicles has issued draft rules that would prohibit the use of 'auto pilot' in marketing materials for systems similar to Tesla's.

"U.S. regulators are investigating a fatal crash that occurred in May in Florida, which Tesla has said was the first known fatality involving Autopilot. An update to Autopilot's software last month may have prevented that crash, Mr. Musk has said. The changes included making the system more reliant on radar to navigate.

"Mr. Musk expressed his frustration with the large amount of attention received by Autopliot crashes relative to automobile crashes in general. 'It does not reflect well upon the media,' he said. He noted that a negative story dissuading people from using autonomous vehicles was effectively 'killing people' since the technology made driving safer."

Whether fair of not, Anand says Tesla has been under increased scrutiny because of accidents and a fatality related to its semi-autonomous feature. "The scrutiny will be magnified with this announcement," Anand says, adding, "For now, though, the bigger question is still how Tesla 'gets there' in terms of profitability and longer-term sustainability."

Drivers have repeatedly shown an aversion to self-driving cars. The technology that Tesla is announcing will still allow motorists to drive. The cars will have pedals and a steering wheel. In a study about driver attitudes, Kelley showed that Level 4 is the most appealing version of autonomy for consumers.

"It's actually not a challenge to offer a full range of Level 4 autonomous hardware to any new vehicle," says Michael Harley with Kelley Blue Book. Harley points out that the hardware Tesla is announcing isn't, on its own, groundbreaking with its collection of cameras, sensors, radars and processors. "The most critical piece of the puzzle," says Harley, is car-to-car communication. That, he says, "ensures full Level 4 autonomous riding is safe for passengers and pedestrians alike." Tesla made no announcement about car-to-car communication.

The Transportation Department only recently asserted its authority in the realm of driverless technology. Regulators said they would have to approve self-driving software code before it makes it to the road.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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