SANTA MONICA, California — The self-driving Tesla Model S making headlines all over the world this morning apparently won't be all that special, at least not at first. And it may not be coming as soon as Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk seemed to suggest.
In a press conference Thursday morning, Musk said an over-the-air software update that would enable the initial phase of Tesla's "autopilot" feature for highway driving on cars equipped with the proper hardware would "hopefully" be coming "in about three months."
That has widely been reported as Musk promising a self-driving car in three months.
But in a telephone interview this morning, a spokeswoman for Tesla stated that Musk "did not give a date" and that Tesla has not confirmed a delivery schedule for the software update he was discussing. She also reiterated that, as Musk did say, only the first few features of what could one day make the Model S and future Teslas truly self-driving cars will be made available initially.
Edmunds has been told that the autopilot feature at first will take over a few "tedious tasks" while requiring the driver to remain alert and ready to take control of the car at a moment's notice.
That's probably a good thing for Tesla, as California — the company's home and one of its most important markets — doesn't yet permit cars with more advanced self-driving features, except for highly regulated testing.
Musk, who has a penchant for talking about things that are possible without always making a clear distinction between what will be and what could be, seemed at one point during Thursday's press conference to suggest that a Model S driver using the autopilot feature could simply let the car do the driving.
He also said, though, that there is "certainly an expectation" that Model S drivers using autopilot would be "paying attention" to the road.
That's an important caveat and Edmunds later was told that the features to be initiated first would require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel when using autopilot.
While Musk has not specified just what features would be made available to Model S owners once the new software is available, it appears it initially would keep the cars in what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's autonomous car guidelines call the "Level 2" mode.
That would include things such as automatic lane keeping and adaptive cruise control that enables the car to follow another vehicle, automatically accelerating and braking as needed to maintain a safe distance between the two. A driver still is needed and must be ready and able to quickly resume control.
Fully autonomous driving is defined as Level 4 autonomy in which a driver is not needed, while Level 3 autonomy allows the driver "to cede control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions." The driver can relax and do things not related to driving — such as texting — but is expected "to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time."
Some Level 2 features already are available on a handful of luxury cars from makers such as Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti. Ford, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo all offer versions of lane keeping, but as a driver assistance aid rather than a self-driving feature.
Level 2 cars would be fine with California regulators, says Bernardo Soriano, deputy director of the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. But "we'd have a problem" if Tesla were to try to launch a car with Level 3 capabilities, he says. The state is in the process of developing regulations for common use of higher levels of self-driving technology.
Most states — 45 of them — have no rules addressing fully autonomous vehicles, making them legal by default.
But 14 of those states are working on regulations, and five others including California already have them. California law right now only allows for testing of autonomous cars by specially trained test-drivers. Regular drivers can only use cars with up to Level 2 features such as lane keeping, in which sensors identify lane markers, and other equipment centers the vehicle in the lane and keeps it centered until overridden by the driver.
Test-only self-driving cars are also permitted in Michigan, Nevada and Washington, D.C., while Florida law seems to say that anyone can use a self-driving car, specifying that the state doesn't "prohibit or specifically regulate" testing or operation of vehicles with autonomous technology. New York law says drivers of all types of vehicles must always keep at least one hand on the steering wheel.
Whenever Tesla does make autopilot available, it will likely come in incremental steps. It also will only be available on cars built since October 2014, Musk said. Tesla didn't equip its cars with all the necessary hardware until then.
Edmunds says: There's less to the self-driving Tesla story than many took away from Musk's press conference, but the fact that Tesla can make such improvements to its vehicles with an over-the-air software change is big news in and of itself.