It’s not quite a self-driving car, but it’s a car that can drive itself at times.
That is, the most recent update to the Tesla Model S — patched into already-owned cars as a software update and available Thursday morning — brings cars that are currently on the road a step closer to autonomy. While 10 companies, Tesla among them, have permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test fully autonomous vehicles on the road, the Tesla update allows the car to take over specific aspects of driving.
For now, those aspects include steering to maintain the car’s lane, making a lane change, managing speed based on surrounding traffic and avoiding collisions, according to a Tesla Motors blog post. The car can also scan to find open parking spots and parallel park for the driver.
“Tesla Autopilot relieves drivers of the most tedious and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel,” the blog post reads. “While truly driverless cars are still a few years away, Tesla Autopilot functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear. The driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car.”
Not all Model S cars are capable of installing the software update, according to USA Today. The company began outfitting the Model S with the necessary hardware — radar, a camera and 12 ultrasonic sensors — a year ago, so older models don’t have the equipment to allow autopilot to operate. Autopilot also costs $2,500 to activate.
Drivers will have access to the information the car is using to make its decisions, like not changing lanes at the driver’s request if another vehicle is in the way. According to the USA Today article, the cars will also “learn” as they log autopilot miles on the road. That will enable the cars to make better decisions as to the best speed to maintain while making turns and when to brake when a pedestrian is nearby.
For now, the company wants drivers to keep their hands near the wheel. But Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk said Teslas should be ready to take people to work while they’re asleep in about three years.
Meanwhile, a number of other companies are working on fully autonomous technology. They include Uber, which offers a taxi-like service via a smart phone application, Google, Honda and Mercedes Benz. California has regulations in place governing the testing of vehicles, but the DMV is still working on rules for the operational use of driverless cars.
The state is actually on the leading edge of developing autonomous vehicle regulations when compared with the rest of the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California is one of only six states with laws enacted regarding self-driving cars. The District of Columbia has also passed a law, while Arizona’s rules around the vehicles are governed through an executive order. Texas, where Google has begun testing some of its self-driving cars, has no rules in place for their operation.