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Tesla’s Clever Plan To Push Self-Driving Cars Into the Mainstream

Plenty of observers say that self-driving cars aren’t ready for prime time.
A Tesla Model S. Image: Tesla

All new Tesla drivers are being signed up for one big beta test of autonomous cars. On Wednesday, the automaker announced that every vehicle it produces will come equipped with self-driving technology. Many believe that self-driving cars are still a long way off, and that they need to be implemented with caution—especially after a fatal autonomous vehicle accident involving a Tesla this summer.

But the beauty here is that Tesla's self-driving technology won't be deployed before it's ready, and instead will be tested and improved with human drivers.


The computer will run in "shadow mode," which means the Tesla will track every decision or action taken by the driver, and compare it to what the computer would have done in the same situation. In this way, the computer will learn safe driving habits from the human behind the wheel, who'll act sort of like a driving instructor.

With enough of this practice, Musk thinks the system can go from being twice as good as the average human driver, to ten times as safe.

Video: Tesla

The next Tesla drivers will actually be losing some features that they've had with current iterations of autopilot: the lane-changing and car-spacing abilities will disappear for a time. The company aims to upgrade its autopilot to become a level 5 autonomous driving system, which means that no input is required from the human in the vehicle to get from place A to place B. It's still being debated exactly what a true level 5 system entails, but Google says that a level 5 system makes the steering wheel and pedals obsolete.

Read More: The Head of CMU's Robotics Lab Says Self-Driving Cars Are 'Not Even Close'

Tesla's technology uses an array of sensors throughout the car's body that will give it a 360-degree view. The car's new eyes include eight high-definition video cameras, 12 ultrasonic detectors, and a radar system that will not impact its shape or external design. An Nvidia GPU that makes trillions of calculations a second will be the brains of the operation.


Musk announced that, in 2017, the technology will be used to drive someone cross-country—from downtown Los Angeles to New York City—without even needing the human to charge the vehicle.

Charging prototype finding its way to Model S. Video: Tesla/YouTube

Fully autonomous, self-driving cars might still be a long way off. Jalopnik rightly points out that the video published to demo the new technology takes place in the perfect driving environment, and not the messy reality in which most of us live.

But Musk's move to lay the groundwork for the future of driving will put Tesla ahead. The point of these new features is not to have self driving cars today, but implement the machine learning that will bring safer autonomous vehicles.

Collecting driving data through advanced sensors is a critical step towards the use of tech by the masses.

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