Here’s how Tesla’s new self-driving system will work

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Reuters/Noah Berger

Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a big announcement Wednesday night when the world had its attention turned to the presidential debate.

Musk announced that Tesla vehicles currently in production – which include the Model X, Model S, and future Model 3 – will be equipped with new hardware that will enable them to be driverless. A Tesla vehicle will drive itself from Los Angeles to New York by the end of 2017 as a demonstration of the new technology, Musk said.

Since driverless cars have yet to secure regulatory approval, owners of the new Tesla cars won’t be able to turn on the self-driving capability just yet. However, the new hardware suite is providing Tesla cars with new Autopilot capabilities that customers could tap into as early as December of this year.

Tesla cars on the road today have Tesla’s first-generation Autopilot system that allows the cars to automatically steer, change lanes, and merge onto highways. Convenience features built into the first-generation Autopilot also allow the cars to park themselves, both in perpendicular and parallel fashions.

The new hardware update is improving Autopilot, renaming it Enhanced Autopilot, and paving the way for Tesla cars to become fully autonomous later down the road. Here’s our breakdown of the new system:


Tesla vehicles built between September 2014 and October 2016 were equipped with one camera used for Autopilot. But new Tesla cars are now being built with eight cameras that provide 360-degree visibility and 250 meters (820 feet) of range.

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Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Tesla cars still come with one radar sensor, but it has enhanced processing that allows it to see through heavy rain, fog, dust, and even a car in front of it.

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Tesla

Tesla is also still using 12 ultrasonic sensors — however, they have been updated to detect hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the previous sensors.


New Tesla cars will use Nvidia’s Titan GPU, a new onboard computer system with 40 times as much computing power as Tesla’s previous system.

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Tesla

If you buy a new Tesla, you can opt to purchase the new Autopilot system for $5,000. That system will take advantage of four of the car’s eight cameras as well as the radar, 12 sensors, and the new onboard computing system.

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Tesla

Enhanced Autopilot allows the car to match speed to traffic conditions, automatically change lanes without driver input, merge on and off highways, and park itself. It can also maneuver around objects in a more complex environment than it could before to find you when you summon it.

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Tesla

But if you order a new Model X or Model S today, some Autopilot features will be temporarily disabled. The cars will temporarily lack features like automatic emergency braking, active cruise control, and collision warning.

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Tesla

Tesla is temporarily disabling those features while it calibrates the new sensors on the cars. Once the new features are ‘robustly validated,’ Tesla will roll out the Enhanced Autopilot features via over-the-air updates in December, pending regulatory approval.

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Tesla

The new hardware suite enables the cars to completely drive themselves. However, your Tesla actually doing so depends on regulatory approval. So even if you buy a new Tesla that’s capable of full autonomy, you can’t use it just yet.

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Benjamin Zhang/Business Insider

Tesla’s full self-driving system will cost you $8,000 at the time of purchase and will include all the features of Enhanced Autopilot. However, it is unclear when all of the autonomous features for the self-driving system will become available. Tesla says it will depend on software validation and regulatory approval.

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Tesla

The full self-driving system will utilize all eight cameras, allowing it to find the optimal route to your destination. It can also navigate urban and rural streets, even ones without lane markings …

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REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

… and manage intersections with stop signs, traffic lights, and roundabouts.

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REUTERS/Carlos Barria

If you get into your self-driving Tesla and don’t enter a destination, the car will look at your calendar and take you to your assumed destination or home if nothing is in the calendar.

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Tesla

All of this means that if you order a new Tesla today, you could feasibly have a fully self-driving car, pending regulatory approval. Until then, you’re getting a host of advanced Autopilot features.

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Asa Mathat | D: All Things Digital

The update comes while Tesla’s first-generation Autopilot system is still under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration following a fatal accident in a Model S that had Autopilot activated.

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Highway Safety & Motors Vehicles

Read more about that here »


“The foundation has been laid for fully autonomous. It’s twice as safe as a human, maybe better,” Musk said on a call with journalists introducing the new Autopilot system. “It’s basically a supercomputer in the car.”

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Tesla