Tesla announced Wednesday that it would release a complete update to its Autopilot system later this month, including new self-driving capabilities.
The new version, which Tesla owners and fans have long-awaited, will update the system with faster hardware as well as new optical software that CEO Elon Musk says will improve safety.
Pete Bannon, a Tesla engineer who is leading hardware development for the Autopilot system, says the company has chips working in prototypes that will drop-in to all three of the company's models: S, X, and 3. The company did not specify whether the new chip could be substituted in early cars equipped with Autopilot Version 1 hardware.
Substituting a new chip would require Tesla drivers to schedule a visit with a service center to get the new features and the new hardware. Normally, Tesla releases new features via over-the-air software updates, but the announcement indicates that the cars' Autopilot 2 hardware may not have the capacity to accommodate the upgrade.
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Bannon said in the call that the new chip has "cycles to spare," which implies that the old hardware may not be powerful enough to run the new software. That would provide justification for the company switching to the new chip.
Several Teslas using Autopilot have been involved in high-profile crashes when the cars were under the software's control.
Tesla has responded to the crash reports saying that drivers were using the system inappropriately, didn't heed warnings to put their hands back on the wheel, and showed no signs of paying attention for seconds or even minutes before the crashes occurred.
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Bannon said early access to the Autopilot Version 9 software, which will "bring some significant advances in autonomy," will be coming in about four weeks.
CEO Elon Musk said last month that Version 9 would "begin to enable full-self driving features."
That issue is better in latest Autopilot software rolling out now & fully fixed in August update as part of our long-awaited Tesla Version 9. To date, Autopilot resources have rightly focused entirely on safety. With V9, we will begin to enable full self-driving features.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 10, 2018
Stuart Bowers, who recently joined the Autopilot team, said on the Tesla earnings conference call that the new software will offer full "on-ramp to off-ramp" capability. It is not designed to be used in urban environments, where unexpected obstacles are likely.
Tesla has long sold its cars as capable of driving themselves in some conditions and has charged buyers an extra $3,000 for the optional Full Self-Driving Capability, but it has yet to enable the feature.
Last month, the company quietly increased the price of the option for new buyers who haven't prepaid for it. Those buyers will now have to pay $5,000 to get the feature.
Tesla has a long history of releasing early versions of features and even new models to certain customers in a beta test as it rolls out new capabilities. Autopilot Version 9 is not expected to be available to all Tesla owners until later.