These are Tesla’s new autopilot features

Oct 14, 2015

Starting on Thursday, Tesla cars will be able to parallel park, steer, and change lanes on highways for their drivers using computing, software, mapping data, and sensors.

The new features, called autopilot, are a step on the road to self-driving cars, and are enabled through the cars' wireless connectivity and computing capabilities.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday afternoon at an event at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. that he thinks the autopilot features are "a profound experience" that "will change people's perception of the future."

But Tesla's (tsla) autopilot features are still in their early phase of development and Musk emphasized that the software is currently in "beta" mode.

"It is important to exercise great caution at this early stage," said Musk.

The newly enabled autopilot features include computer-assisted parallel parking, steering and lane changing on highways, and an upgraded warning system for side collisions. Fortune tested out the steering and lane change autopilot capabilities on the highway near Tesla's headquarters (we'll bring you our first impressions soon).

Although all Model S cars built within the past year, and all Model X cars, have the autopilot hardware built in, customers can access autopilot with a one time $2,500 fee. Tesla customers that already bought a "technology package," already have access to the autopilot features. Tesla no longer sells the technology package, but says most Model S owners already have autopilot enabled through the technology package.

Musk said Tesla has shipped 60,000 cars with the autonomous capability. The other customers who haven't enabled the autopilot features will also be able to download version 7 of the software and will benefit from other design and safety enhancements.

The Model S and Model X cars have 12 sensors on the bottom of the vehicle, a front-facing camera next to the rear-view mirror, and a radar system under the nose. The computing and sensors are key to the autopilot experience.

On Wednesday night, Tesla plans to push out its latest software upgrade, software 7.0, which includes several of Tesla's auto-pilot features. Customers in many places of the U.S. will be able to download the software, which should take an hour or so to complete, on Thursday. Customers in Europe and Asia will likely have to wait until next week for the software.

Although the new features, which have already been tested by an early group of testers for several weeks, don't enable the car to drive autonomously, they do offer major assistance to aspects of driving. For example, Tesla cars can now steer themselves on the highway, but the company still suggests that drivers keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention to the road.

Other more futuristic, self-driving features that Tesla has talked about in the past — like a function where the driver gets out of the car and the car parks itself – are not yet available. Those will be available in future software upgrades.

Tesla's autopilot mode is enabled in the photo.Tesla's autopilot mode is enabled in the photo.  Photo courtesy of Fortune, Katie Fehrenbacher 

Musk said future updates to autopilot would include being able to read stop signs and red lights and give drivers warnings. Software version 7.1 will be able to automatically drive the car into a garage, said Musk.

Tesla is aggressively using data, GPS mapping, and computer learning to move its early auto pilot system closer to self-driving technology down the road. Musk said that the autopilot system will be able to automatically learn over time and get better as drivers use the system on roads.

Tesla has been using data from its fleet of cars, as well as data from Tesla employees driving on roads, to create high-precision digital maps that will make the autopilot system smarter. Musk said Tesla is the only auto company to do this, and Tesla might be open to selling that high-precision mapping data to other car companies down the road.

Eventually Tesla cars could have full autonomy in maybe three years, said Musk. When regulators see data that shows that autonomous cars are safer cars, they'll be willing to approve the technology, said Musk.

Out of Tesla's 14,000 employees, Musk said Tesla only has 50 or so people solely working on autopilot.

"Amazing things can get done with small teams," said Musk.

Many big auto makers and auto suppliers are working on similar software-enabled driver assist and autonomous features. Audi (ag) , Bosch, Daimler (dai) , Ford (f) , Toyota (tm) , Volvo, Nissan, and General Motors (gm) all are developing autonomous driving features.

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