Tesla is making another leap forward in the race to build self-driving cars.
The company said this week that every new Tesla rolling off the factory floor will now come with the hardware necessary to support full autonomous driving mode. This includes the recently announced Model 3, Tesla's electric vehicle targeted at mainstream consumers. Some of the company's existing Model S and Model X vehicles already have the technology, according to the company.
To make the system work, Tesla is equipping every new car with eight cameras to pull in visual data from around the car in 360 degrees. An additional dozen ultrasonic sensors will help detect obstacles. And crunching all the incoming data will be a sophisticated computer powered by a top-of-the-line graphics processor.
Unlike self-driving cars built by rivals Google and Uber - which have large, bulky cameras and sensor systems mounted on the roof - Tesla's hardware will be integrated seamlessly into the body of the car, chief executive Elon Musk said.
"Nothing is sticking out; this in no way makes the car ugly," Musk told reporters Wednesday. "There are no weird protuberances. It's incredibly subtle."
But just because the autonomy package comes installed does not mean that customers will be able to enable self-driving on day one. Musk said that further testing will be necessary before the feature can be switched on. The company plans to conduct self-driving tests on a closed track before opening it up to a select number of early users, a group that will include Musk himself.
Then Tesla will slowly make the software available to more customers around the globe, gradually activating it in all cars in "shadow mode," during which the cars will not be driving themselves but feeding data to engineers about how the computer might make decisions if it were truly in control.
Ultimately, it may take a year or more for members of the public to see the feature in action; by the end of 2017, Musk said, people could expect to see a cross-country test drive from Los Angeles to New York involving a Tesla operating completely autonomously for the duration of the trip.
Tesla's announcement comes after a summer of heightened scrutiny over its Autopilot feature. Autopilot is not a self-driving technology; it is designed as a driver-assist application similar to adaptive cruise control, but it has nevertheless raised safety concerns among sceptics, including lawmakers. In May, a Florida driver died as a result of Autopilot's failure to brake for a turning truck, resulting in what Tesla later said was the first fatal accident linked to the technology.
Musk took aim Wednesday at the spate of critical media reports on Autopilot, saying that every negative story about the feature distracted from the thousands of people who are killed on roads today because of human error.
Every time the media reports on Autopilot's flaws, "you dissuade people from using autonomous vehicles. You're killing people," Musk said.
Autopilot will continue to exist side-by-side with Tesla's self-driving software. The latter will likely come under regulatory analysis after highway safety officials last month published a set of new federal guidelines for self-driving cars.