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Tesla is building self-driving cars

Elon Musk in 90 Seconds

Tesla is now building cars equipped for full self-driving. The cars aren’t smart enough yet to use this new technology but, Tesla says they will learn fast.

Software capable of using this new equipment will be added a little at a time over the coming months. Tesla expects that by the end of 2017 one of its cars will be able to drive from New York City to Los Angeles without the driver having to do anything, Elon Musk said on a conference call Wednesday night.

True self-driving isn’t possible with the equipment that has been installed on Tesla cars up to now. Starting next week, the cars will be built with more cameras, giving computers a full 360 degree view around the car. They will also be built with computers that are 40 times faster than the ones installed in Tesla cars currently and have improved ultrasonic sensors.

“It’s basically a supercomputer in car,” Musk said.

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For now, Tesla cars with the new hardware will actually be less capable than cars with the old hardware suite. But, as new self-driving features are rolled out, the new cars will soon surpass the old ones, Musk said.

Because of the complexity of the equipment, it won’t be possible for owners of older cars to have their vehicles upgraded with all the new cameras and sensors. Full self-driving will only be available to owners of new Model S, Model X and, eventually, Model 3 cars.

“Upgrading cars is not realistic,” Musk said. “It’s like giving cars a spinal cord transplant.”

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Before adding new software capabilities, Musk said, Tesla will validate them through millions of miles of real-world testing. For instance, software will run in the background on cars but not take any actual action. In this way, Tesla will be able to gather data comparing what the computer would have done to what the driver actually did. The computer software should be better than a human driver at avoiding crashes.

Initially, Tesla wants its self-driving technology to be twice as safe as a human driver. But ultimately, Musk said, it could be as much as 10 times safer than the average human driver.

The new system will not be called Autopilot, Musk said, because that name refers to the driver assistance features that are on Tesla cars now on the road. Tesla Autopilot is not intended to drive the car on its own, but only to assist a driver behind the wheel who is expected to be fully attentive at all times.

Also, Autopilot is designed to function only on limited access highways while the new self-driving system will be able to function even on city streets with pedestrians, cyclists and complex intersections, Musk said.

The Autopilot has suffered from some bad press this past year, including one fatal crash in which a driver in Florida, traveling at high speed, hit a semi truck that was turning left in front of him.

Nevertheless, Musk has insisted, even the relatively limited Autopilot system has avoided far more crashes and deaths than it has ever caused. The same will be true, to an even greater degree, of the new fully self-driving systems, he said.

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