Tesla Motors begins distributing on Thursday an advanced set of autonomous driving features that stop short of being a fully driverless system due to regulatory and safety concerns.
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Tesla's software, announced earlier this year, will allow hands- and feet-free driving in everything from stop-and-go traffic to highway speeds, and enables a car to park itself. It will be available for 50,000 newer Model S cars world-wide via software download, with owners in the U.S. likely to get the features first.
The Palo Alto, Calif., luxury electric-car maker's software requires a driver to grab the steering wheel every 10 seconds or so to avoid having the vehicle slow.
The restrictions show the balance that auto makers are looking to strike between offering advanced features and staying within licensing regulations. Customers increasingly want high-tech gadgets and safety gear, but most state regulators place limits on who could use those features.
"We're being especially cautious at this early stage," Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said on Wednesday. "Over time there will not be a need to have their hands on the wheel," he said, but it is recommended while the feature is in "beta" test.
Tesla has been an auto-industry pioneer in developing over-the-air software updates for its vehicles. Only Teslas built in the past 12 months have the requisite sensors and cameras needed to take advantage of the software.
If the auto maker had not put the check-in feature in place, it likely would have run afoul with regulators in California, the company's largest market. California's Department of Motor Vehicles requires special licensing for autonomous vehicles and ranks them in stages; if it is fully autonomous, it needs special license to operate. Tesla didn't contact the California regulator about the new software download, the agency said. But an official said a check-in feature would likely keep the car under the level where special licensing is required.
Three other states have similar rules.
The auto maker has been testing the autopilot function for months, giving early versions of the software to trusted owners. Mr. Musk has been testing the software regularly in Southern California near his home and said it worked best with a car in front of it and clear lane lines.
He said the next update would include more autonomous features, and in three years Tesla will be capable of building a car "able to take you from point to point, or drive from home to work, without you touching anything."
A recent test ride in highways around Detroit shows a Model S P90D with the features can handle driving in light traffic fairly well. The driver sets a speed through the cruise control and the car will stay in the center of the lane, keeping its distance from a car in front of it or simply driving at the set speed.
Hitting the lane changing signal will cause the car to check if there is a car in the blind spot and then it will switch lanes and accelerate to the set speed. The car also is programmed to understand potentially dangerous curves, like exit ramps, or curves on downslopes, and slow down.
John Leonard, an autonomous vehicle researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Tesla's vehicle qualifies as an autonomous car regardless of the check in feature. "If your hands are off the wheel for a sustained amount of time," it is an autonomous car, he said.