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Tesla's Model 3: Making Automated Driving More Mainstream

The company's new electric car has the same safety-oriented automated driving features as previous Tesla models, but is far cheaper.

Tesla Motors wants to put automated driving in the hands of the average person, beginning at the end of 2017.

Elon Musk, chairman and CEO of the company, announced at a product launch on March 31 that the Model 3 — the lowest-priced Tesla car yet at $35,000 — will come standard with Autopilot. The feature, which has already been rolled out in more expensive car models from Tesla, is capable of maintaining and changing lanes, avoiding objects and parking itself without human control.

“You don’t need to buy an option,” Musk said during the presentation. “The Autopilot safety features will always be there [in the Model 3].”

That could be important for automated driving for a couple of reasons. One is that many people, including academics and elected leaders, are still worried that the industry is rushing too quickly to put self-driving cars on the road. At a Senate committee hearing in March, representatives of Lyft, General Motors, Delphi Automotive and Google told members of Congress that they want to get more people comfortable with the technology as it develops. At the same time, senators signaled concerns about consumer data privacy and whether computerized cars would be susceptible to hacking.

But automated features are today largely concentrated in luxury vehicles, exactly where most people can’t experience them. The Tesla Model S, for example, is listed at about $60,000 cash on the company’s website after government incentives.

Musk’s hope is that the lower price tag on the Model 3 will launch those features to the mainstream. And so far, the strategy is showing signs of life. During the product launch, Musk said the company received more than 115,000 pre-orders for the new car in the first 24 hours. For reference, Tesla sold just 25,000 Model S vehicles in all of 2015.

Another reason widespread use of automated driving is important is that it could help drive along development of the technology. When Tesla first rolled out Autopilot in October, a blog post on the company’s website said that data from cars using the safety features would help improve the technology.

Further, money from the U.S. Department of Transportation is helping cities across the country begin testing out vehicle-to-infrastructure and automated driving systems.

Tesla isn’t the only auto company trying to increase the prevalence of automated driving features. GM announced last year that it plans to introduce a semi-autonomous driving package called Super Cruise to a Cadillac model in 2016.

Musk also focused on the environmental significance of an affordable electric car — indeed, he opened the event with a graph showing increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The Model 3 will also come standard with Supercharging, which in the Model S allows users to charge their batteries 80 percent in 40 minutes.

With more Supercharge-capable cars on the road, Musk said Tesla is planning on doubling the number of Supercharge stations worldwide from 3,600 to 7,200. And that doesn’t include public and private charging stations that aren’t Tesla’s.

“You will be able to go virtually anywhere,” Musk said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.