Ah, the self-driving car. It's been a dream for decades, a technological challenge for years and now the consumer reality is just around the corner. If you've been following the tech news for the last few years, however, it seems like it's taking a loooong time to get around that corner.
There are plenty of good reasons why self-driving cars haven't hit the showroom yet. For one, the technology is still being tweaked, although Google's self-driving cars have traveled more than a million miles with very few problems. There are also some legal questions to figure out, like who is at fault in accidents. Those are important, but it seems the pioneering electric car manufacturer Tesla has decided we've waited long enough.
Tomorrow, Tesla will roll out version 7.0 of its operating system for the Model S, which, among other things, turns on self-driving. Every Model S made since September, and every Model X, already includes the necessary sensors.
Now it's true that we're not talking about true point-A-to-point-B self driving. Instead it's bits and pieces, some of which you can already find in other cars, and others you'll wonder why we don't already have them.
First up is what Tesla calls Autosteer, which is basically an advanced form of cruise control. When you're driving on the freeway, simply turn it on and Autosteer will keep you in your lane and going the speed limit, or matching speed with surrounding cars. The technologies for this (lane change warning, GPS, speed limit sign scanning, adaptive cruise control) has been around for a number of years, but this is the first time it's come to a consumer vehicle.
Next up is Auto Lane Change. Simply tap the turn signal and your car will safely change lanes. It should actually be safer than doing it yourself because the car has 360-degree video and ultrasonic sensors so there's no blind spot.
Autopark is another new Tesla feature, although it's been in other cars for a few years now. The car will scan for open spaces on the street and alert you when it finds one. Simply put it in position and it will take over the tricky job of parallel parking.
Finally, in the safety category, there's Automatic Emergency Steering and Side Collision Warning. These detect other vehicles that come too close and move your car out of harm's way, or give you an alert. So if someone pulls too far out from a side street as you're passing, your car will swerve to avoid them before you even see they're there. Naturally, the car also knows what obstacles are on the other side so it doesn't run into those either.
The only thing that's missing from the list of features is autonomous city driving, and that really is the trickiest part of self-driving cars. However, Tesla founder Elon Musk thinks Tesla will have a fully self-driving car in a few years.
There is a word of caution, however. In the call where Musk announced these new self-driving features, he was very careful to say they're "beta" features. In the world of computer jargon, that means they're not done yet.
Running beta software that might crash your computer is one thing. Beta software that might crash your car is another. That's why Tesla is very clear that drivers should always keep their hands on the wheels, even when the car is doing the steering. That does kind of defeat the purpose of a self-driving car, but it also means that Tesla isn't liable if something goes wrong.
Tesla says that version 7.0 cars are in constant communication with Tesla headquarters, both uploading new data to help the self-driving systems improve, and downloading new information and maps to refine how it works. So even within the first few weeks, Tesla owners should see improvements in how the systems handle.
Do you think this is a good first step for self-driving cars? Would you trust these systems to drive your car for you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.