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A screenshot of "Summon," the remote self-parking feature introduced by Tesla in January 2015. Courtesy of Tesla

Tesla: This Is Our Most Significant Step Towards Safe Self-Driving Cars

Feb 09, 2016

Tesla's most significant step towards safe autonomous cars is driverless parking technology it introduced last month, the company says in its latest blog post.

The feature, known as Summon, allows the driver to step out of the vehicle, hit a button via an app on their smartphone, and watch their Model X SUV or Model S sedan park itself. Tesla introduced Summon in January in its 7.1 software update. Summon is a new feature in Tesla's hands-free driving technology called autopilot.

Tesla puts limits on autopilot feature:

Tesla’s first generation autopilot service, which rolled out in October via an over-the-air software update, offered computer-assisted parallel parking, steering and lane changing on highways, and an upgraded warning system for side collisions. Autopilot uses radar, ultrasonics, GPS navigation and cameras, and the service is constantly learning, thanks to machine learning algorithms, detailed mapping and sensor data, and the car’s wireless connection. Tesla (tsla) leverages this information from its entire fleet autopilot-enabled cars. When one car learns something, they all learn it.

Tesla says Summon reduces the risk of a driver hitting a person, animal, or object while attempting to squeeze in a tight space and improves the convenience of parking. The parking feature "lays important groundwork" for autonomous driving, Tesla says in its blog post.

Tesla's semi-autonomous driving technology first focused on hands-free driving on highways. And now it's tackling the other end with driverless parking. It has yet to tackle city driving, the toughest, most complex task for self-driving cars because of all unpredictable variables — such as traffic lights and signs, pedestrians, children, pets, and other obstacles like navigating construction cones and traffic circles.

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The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines vehicle automation as having five levels. At level 0, the driver is completely in control and by level 4, the vehicle takes over all safety-critical functions and monitors roadway conditions for an entire trip.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk told Fortune in December that he believes the company will be able to achieve a a level 4 self-driving car in two years.

Most major automakers, including Google, are working on autonomous driving technologies of varying degrees. Google (goog) is testing a fully autonomous prototype that replaces the driver completely, and the company hopes to commercialize its technology by 2020. Most automakers are further behind, with Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla Motors, and Volvo leading the pack. Currently, the majority of automakers working on autonomous driving technologies are focused on semi-autonomous technology for highway driving.

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