Tesla Puts Electric Cars on Autopilot With Self-Parking Vehicles That Switch Lanes by Themselves

Radar, ultrasonic sonar, and software let the new Model S do just about everything but drive itself.

(Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Oct 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

Maybe we’ll get to meet the Jetsons after all.

Rosie the robotic maid is still years off, but Tesla Motors chief Elon Musk on Wednesday night unveiled a Model S electric sports sedan that will show up at your door to pick you up and then park itself in the garage when you return—just like George Jetson’s ride.

“When you get home, you’ll actually be able to just step out of the car and have it park itself in the garage,” said Musk at an event in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne. “Going a step forward, you’ll be able to summon the car if you’re on private property. The car will come to you wherever you are.”

“If you have your calendar turned on, it’ll meet you there,” Musk added. “If you’re getting ready to go to work and it knows you need to leave a half hour before work, you can say, ‘OK, I’d like it come out and have the air conditioner on, the music playing,’ and it’ll just come and be there.”

Tesla calls the technology Autopilot, and it’s being installed on new Model S’s now rolling off the company’s Silicon Valley assembly line. It’s not a self-driving car like the prototype Google vehicles frequently seen around the San Francisco Bay Area, but it’s another step down that road.

Some Autopilot features, such as collision avoidance, are already available on high-end Mercedes and other luxury cars.

Other features are more novel, such as the Model S’s ability to read road signs and adjust the car’s speed accordingly. And when you use the turn signal, the car will switch lanes by itself when it’s safe to do so. The Model S can also can steer itself, following the curve of the road, and will brake when it detects objects ahead. (See video below.)

Autopilot can do all that thanks to a forward-looking radar that scans the road ahead for other cars and objects. “It’s able to see through fog, through snow, anything really,” said Musk. Cars and objects that the driver might not be able to see show up on the Model S’s video screen.

A camera mounted on the car can recognize pedestrians and stoplights and read road signs, while a 360-degree ultrasonic sonar envelops the car in what Musk called a “protective cocoon.”

“They can see even soft objects,” he said. “They can see a small child, even a dog. It’s very sensitive and operates at all speeds, from 0 to 155.”

Tesla was a bit cagey about just when the software to make all that happen will be rolled out.

“Progressive software updates over time will enable sophisticated convenience and safety features that use these sensors to respond to real world conditions,” the company says on its website. “These features will ultimately give Model S Autopilot on the highway from on-ramp to off-ramp.”

Tesla also announced that it in February it will begin selling a new, screamingly fast dual-motor Model S that gives the car all-wheel drive.

How fast?

Drivers who can fork over $120,000 will be able to go from 0 to 60 in 3.2 seconds.

“It’s mad,” said Musk. “You’ll be able to choose three settings: normal, sport, and insane. It will actually say insane.”