Technology & Science

Tesla previews auto-steering software for its Model S electric cars

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has announced new software designed to 'make it impossible' to run out of battery power on an electric car trip and previewed his vision of how driverless cars will work in the near future.

Company promises Version 6.2 software update for entire Model S fleet

New all-wheel-drive versions of the Tesla Model S car are lined up for test drives in Hawthorne, California October 9, 2014. The software update that promises to 'end range anxiety' will be applied to Tesla's entire Model S fleet. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced new features for its electric cars designed to improve drivers' "peace of mind" about running out of juice on the road, and previewed his vision of how driverless cars will work in the near future, during a press conference on Thursday.

As part of Tesla's Version 6.2 software, the newly announced Range Assurance application always runs in the background of its electric vehicles, and will warn drivers when they travel outside the range of nearby Tesla charging stations.

"It's basically impossible to run out [of battery power] unless you do so intentionally," Musk said.

The Range Assurance feature should be available in the U.S., Europe, and most of China within the next 12 months, he said. It also takes local weather reports and terrain into account.

It also includes a trip planner program that gives drivers the optimal route to your destination, taking into account the most charging stations available along the way.

He also announced other features, including automatic safety braking, side collision warning and blind spot warning for Version 6.2.

In a tweet Sunday, Musk suggested the company would end range anxiety with a software update that would be applied remotely to its Model S all-electric sedan. 

Auto-steering functions previewed

Musk also gave a preview of its Version 7 software, including the first auto-steering or "autopilot" functions, which he says are coming approximately six months from now.

"We can basically go between San Francisco and Seattle without the driver doing anything," Musk said.

He said the functions will first be usable only on the driver's private property, allowing the car to turn itself off, and close the garage door.

Musk's use of the term "autopilot" was deliberate, as he noted that operating a car without a driver isn't yet legal on most U.S. roads.

"There's an expectation that a pilot is paying attention on an airplane," he said. "Same for Model S: you're still expected to pay attention, but should take care of you if you have moments of distraction."

Electric cars need 320k minimum range: Musk

Electric car batteries have a limited range and can take a long time to recharge compared to refuelling a conventional car with gasoline. Because of that "range anxiety" is often considered a major reason why consumers are slow to switch to electric cars.

The battery range of Tesla's Model S is already very high for an electric car — between 335 and 435 kilometres, depending on the model.

When asked about range anxiety, Musk said he considered a range of 200 miles (320 kilometres) to be the "minimum threshhold" for an electric car, and that most people will probably want at least 20 per cent more than that before buying their first model.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has also been building a network of fast chargers across North America, and is offering battery pack swaps between San Francisco and L.A., a drive of more than 600 kilometres. Musk said that "seems to be working well" but "supercharging is the future, for non-commercial traffic."

As part of Tesla's initiative to add more locations to its charging network, Musk said that any restaurant or business that has Model S owners can get charging equipment for free, as long as they're prominently featured on the premises.

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