A view of the open road on I-25 in New Mexico -- from inside a Tesla Model S. [Photo By Christof Demont-Heinrich]

Tesla racing down road to self-driving cars

While Google fiddles around with its self-driving car project, rival Tesla Motors may have just gotten a leg up in this market segment. The Palo Alto, California, electric car manufacturer has released a software update that adds many automated features to its Model S series of vehicles.

This upgrade is completely free-of-charge to North American owners of these automobiles and is expected to become available in Europe and Asia shortly. Thousands of drivers now have the opportunity to try out certain automated features: steering, lane changing, collision avoidance and parallel parking.

The Model S can now follow behind another vehicle, change lanes by itself when the driver engages the turn signal, and maintain lane positioning without user intervention.

The new software isn’t intended to turn the Model S into a fully driverless vehicle. Users must still touch the steering wheel every 10 seconds, and the new features are designed to operate correctly only for highway driving. Tesla CEO Elon Musk was careful to warn drivers that they’re still responsible for any mishaps or accidents that occur on the road.

The new automated features have caused both excitement and trepidation among owners of the Model S. Thousands of motorists are eagerly testing out their cars’ ability to handle several tasks that previously had to be controlled manually.

Some drivers, possessing perhaps more enthusiasm than intelligence, have opted to engage these special functions under conditions for which they were not designed.

They have allowed their vehicles to automatically steer on small, local roads, and the cars have made poor decisions, in some cases veering off the road or into the path of an oncoming automobile. This is only to be expected as users push the technology beyond the use cases for which it was approved.

Besides the specific capabilities that have been implemented within it, the mere fact of the upgrade’s existence augurs a great change in the way the automotive industry operates.

Before, car purchasers were content to possess a vehicle whose performance degraded slowly over time until the automobile was worth but a fraction of the amount initially paid for it. Now that Tesla has pioneered the idea of free, over-the-air updates to cars’ feature sets, consumers will actually be able to enhance the utility and value of their cars going forward.

Perhaps the largest benefits to be gained from Tesla’s and other manufacturers’ future driverless models will involve the environment.

According to Epcor, road vehicles contribute about 20 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – a number that rises to 30 percent when we include other forms of transportation, like planes and ships. Tesla’s vehicles are powered by batteries, not gasoline, so they have much lower carbon footprints than old-school cars. This disparity is likely to increase as these new vehicles learn how to drive in a way that reduces waste and to coordinate their efforts with other smart automobiles.

Tesla may now be able to catch up to Google and other competitors in some areas of driverless vehicle tech.

Google has amassed voluminous, high-detail maps of the world because of its fleet of vehicles devoted to this task. Tesla Model S owners will now essentially become a mapping fleet, feeding data back over the cloud to Tesla’s development team. This will help with almost every element of self-driving performance because any driving situation that one car encounters will be shared with all of them.

Tesla plans to release a completely self-driving vehicle in about three years.

There has been a lot of interest in driverless cars in recent years, but from the perspective of the public at large, it has been mostly just talk.

With Tesla’s latest software updates to the Model S, many drivers will finally get to try out features that they had previously only heard about. This will do wonders for public acceptance of self-driving vehicles and will make it easier for future automated cars to launch.

The use of the software-upgrade model to distribute the changes points the way towards a future in which vehicle operation is enhanced little by little over time without charging car owners a dime.