Tesla To Introduce Auto-Steering Soon—Not Autonomous Driving

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has said that in the next several months, the company will enable technology in its Model S all-electric sedan that may allow you to take your hands off the wheel in some instances.

But it won’t be, as has now been widely (and perhaps erroneously) reported, an autonomous-driving mode.

In the company’s latest ‘6.2’ version of its vehicle software, announced last week and likely to see live update in cars in the next week, the Model S gets two important tools aiming to curb ‘range anxiety, as well as Automatic Emergency Braking and Blind Spot Warning—complementing the forward collision warning and traffic-aware cruise control that the electric car was given with its last update.

Musk said that the automaker is “making good progress on Autosteering,” and that in anticipation of future [semi-autonomous] features the next full upgrade (Version 7) is going to have a “complete UI overhaul.”

“Because you kind of need one given the way the car’s going to interact with you in the future,” Musk added.

The upcoming Tesla Model X crossover, expected this summer, will also have that next full version.

SF to Seattle, no hands…almost

The automaker has been testing its Autosteer feature on a test route is San Francisco to Seattle, Musk noted, and they are “now almost able” to go the distance without the driver touching the steering wheel at all.

Musk said that the technology was “technically capable of going from parking lot to parking lot, but we won’t be enabling that for users with this software suite.” That’s in part because Tesla doesn’t think it’s going to be altogether safe in suburban neighborhoods, where there are no lane markings, or where there are kids or pedestrians, Musk explained, so the system will only be enabled on a highway or major road.

While the system may be as little as three months from being enabled, the CEO made it clear that such a system will be put to market with more constraints.

It’s auto-steering in the sense of a pilot’s autopilot, he said, in that there’s an expectation that you are paying attention. “But it should also take care of you when you have moments of distraction,” he said.

That sounds remarkably close to what a number of automakers, including Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Ford, and Hyundai, are offering in some of their vehicles, with names such as lane-keep assist. Only Musk openly criticized the way those are implemented.

Musk: other automakers have lane-keep backwards

“I think that actually some of the manufacturers have it backwards,” said Musk, referring to how all such systems currently on the market will simply stop steering and following lane boundaries if the driver doesn’t respond. “What if somebody’s distracted, or fell aleep or something…you don’t want to have the car not steer.”

One method is to detect torque on the steering wheel, hinted Musk. “So we might issue a visual and auditory alert to make sure you’re okay.”

That’s what those other systems have you do. But Musk has a good point about how the systems disengage. Ceasing automatic steering functions doesn’t make a lot of sense here—although increasingly urgent reminders to check in and put your hands on the wheel for a time do.

However it’s quite a different claim that a number of respectable news outlets have reported: that Tesla will enable autonomous driving in just a few months.

For Tesla, as well as other automakers, there are various legal issues that still need to be worked out—including over liability in accidents.

Autonomous yet? Not even close.

Autonomous driving modes would allow the driver to truly cast attention away from the road—possibly even disable steering-wheel control, eventually—and they would take some of these core active-safety features and driver aids and then allow either full vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication and vehicle-to-grid (V2G), or some combination thereof, allowing multiple layers of safety so that the car could truly drive itself.

Semi-autonomous systems are what we’ll see more of in the next few years. They would use a combination of automatic steering, to stay within lane boundaries, plus GPS map data, to know when to slow down for corners, and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) data, allowing cars to fill in other details for traffic flow and share real-time info about current road conditions.

Tesla does already have some of those technologies—its location-based smart air suspension, for example, which will change the ride height depending on the road surface. Autosteering may as well pair nicely with the traffic-aware cruise and new range-related functions, cutting stress on the trip.

Mentioning the autonomous word, which Tesla actually didn’t do, confuses things for the engineers, transportation planners, and policy people who are working on true autonomous solutions, which are far more complex than having a car follow lane striping for many miles in a row or reliably slow down for traffic snarls.

And for truly pushing a button and having the car take you on a long-haul road trip, through gridlocked lanes, construction zones, pockmarked cloverleafs, and highway realignments, past hitchhikers and stalled vehicles? It may be a few more years.