Tesla Autopilot: The 10 Most Important Things You Need To Know

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Tesla Autopilot suite of features  -  with version 7.0 update

Tesla Autopilot suite of features - with version 7.0 update

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Tesla Motors is now rolling out its much-awaited "Autopilot" software for the Model S electric car, and it has revealed a number of things about how the autonomous driving system is intended to work.

While an explanatory conference call on Wednesday afternoon lasted less than an hour, Tesla CEO Elon Musk packed plenty of information into his presentation.

Based on the questions we've been getting since then, there's still quite a lot of confusion about what Version 7.0 of Tesla's software is and does.

DON'T MISS: Tesla Model S Electric Car: Changes From 2012 Through 2015

In other words, it seemed as though a cheat sheet might be needed.

So, here's our boiled-down summary of what you need to know about the new Tesla Autopilot software, what it is, what it's supposed to do, and how far along the company has progressed in its development.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk at Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk at Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

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(1) Right now, Autopilot software is far from perfect

Perhaps the most important item, one that Musk stressed repeatedly, is that the Autopilot functions--which cost $2,500 to activate--aren't yet complete.

The very first thing he said in the press call was that this was a "release of Autopilot Version 1, and we still think of it as a public beta--so we want people to be quite careful."

Drivers are strongly recommended to keep their hands on the wheel at all times and stay alert to the need to take back control of their car from the software.

When Autopilot is activated by the driver, the car will keep itself in its lane, change lanes where appropriate if the driver taps the turn signal, avoid vehicles and other hazards around it, speed up and slow down to follow at safe speeds, and, Musk said, generally behave like a safe and sensible human driver.

Today, "in order for it to work really well, you want clear markings on the road or you want to be in quite dense traffic," Musk said. Those are "the two places where it works really well."

"Slow moving gridlocked traffic on Autopilot works super well," he continued, "almost to the point where you can take your hands off. I won't say you should [do that, although] some people may--we don't advise that."

Tesla Autopilot sensor system

Tesla Autopilot sensor system

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Asked whether the system recognized pedestrians, Musk responded, "It should not hit pedestrians, hopefully."

Similarly, he said in response to a question from Road & Track magazine, "In heavy snow, it's harder for the system to work; we'd certainly advise caution in heavy precipitation."

It's worth noting that no other carmaker in North America would be willing to release software that controls the main driving functions of the vehicle as a "beta test" in which every customer who has paid for the car becomes a willing software tester if they choose to turn it on.

ALSO SEE: Tesla Model S Electric Car: Software Changes Since 2012

The degree of risk to Tesla, in other words, is high.

(2) The key differentiator in Tesla's autonomy software is "fleet learning"

Every Model S that Tesla has built--even those not fitted with the necessary sensor hardware to implement Autopilot--transmits its travel data back to the company if the owner has given permission.

That data now increases at a rate of about 1.5 million miles per day covered by the 100,000 or so Model S cars on the roads globally.

Production-ready Mercedes-Benz Actros truck fitted with Highway Pilot autonomous driving system

Production-ready Mercedes-Benz Actros truck fitted with Highway Pilot autonomous driving system

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The data is aggregated (anonymously) into maps that let the central Autopilot system see the precise paths that cars take, and don't take, and overlay those onto third-party road maps.

"Each driver is effectively an expert trainer in how Autopilot should work," Musk explained, and the network of Tesla vehicles is constantly learning more about where cars do and don't actually travel.

Thus the system's capabilities "will keep improving over time, both from the standpoint of all the expert drivers ... training it," he said, "but also in terms of the software functionality"--which will add new features.

(3) Quite a few major features and functions aren't yet implemented

"This version [7.0] doesn't take into account stop signs and red lights," Musk said, "but future examples will."

And "Version 7.1 will [include] self-parking, so the car will park itself in your garage," he promised.

Tesla will add "lots of cool capabilities over time," he said, moving toward an ultimate goal of complete autonomy from the start through the end of a trip.

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