PALO ALTO, California — Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said an "auto steering" feature that edges the electric automaker closer to a self-driving car, will roll out "in about three months" for the 2015 Tesla Model S sedan and upcoming 2016 Model X SUV as part of a larger effort to constantly improve the vehicles.
The dramatic update, part of Tesla's Version 7.0 software, has been undergoing testing in drives from San Francisco to Seattle.
"We're now almost able to travel from San Francisco to Seattle without the driver touching the steering wheel," Musk said in a media conference call on Thursday.
Musk said auto steering will only be enabled when the driver is on a highway, major road or on private property at low speed, not in a "suburban neighborhood," even though the setup is "technically capable of going from parking lot to parking lot."
He likened Tesla's auto steering to the autopilot feature on an aircraft.
Musk said the upgrade will also give the owner the ability to summon the car.
"As long as you are on private property, you can press the 'summon' button on your smartphone and the car will come and find you," he said. "Press the button again and the car will put itself to bed in the garage and close the garage door."
Word of Tesla's auto steering was part of a larger announcement about Tesla's over-the-air Trip Planner and Range Assurance software upgrade that is designed to give drivers peace of mind and eliminate range anxiety, the concern that an electric car will run out of power before it reaches the next charging location.
Musk said Range Assurance is part of a new Version 6.2 software upgrade that's due in about 10 days for the Model S.
"Software Update 6.2 enhances the car's active safety features, bringing Model S closer to autonomous capabilities," said Tesla in a tweet.
Tesla added: "Just like this tweet we'll send it over the air soon. It will pop up on your Model S screen."
Improved safety features include automatic emergency braking, which engages the brakes in an unavoidable collision. This will be a standard upgrade on the Model S and in all future Tesla vehicles.
"The car actually looks up charging stations in real time," Musk said. "It's actually communicating with the Supercharger. It is a totally different concept. It's intelligent charging stations and intelligent cars communicating."
The software will warn drivers before they run out of charging range and plans routes with the charging stations, making it "impossible to run out unless you do so intentionally," he added.
The Model S is designed to be a "very sophisticated computer on wheels."
"Tesla is a software company and a hardware company," Musk said. "We view it in the same way you update or phone or your laptop. People take it to be normal that your phone or your laptop will keep improving. That's the approach we've taken with the Model S."
The Model X debuts this summer.
Edmunds says: Tesla says it does not want software to take a backseat when it comes to improving its vehicles. That's something tech-minded consumers will appreciate.