The Tesla Model S in the Globe parking lot.
Photograph by Aram Boghosian/The Boston Globe — Getty Images
By Katie Fehrenbacher
April 19, 2016

Grandma may be terrified about using autopilot in a Tesla electric car, but most of us would be more than happy to do so. And now more Tesla customers will get to be able to see what it’s like to have a Model S or Model X drive them around—even if they haven’t ponied up the usual $2,500 fee.

Tesla says it’s now offering free trials of its autopilot software for all Model S and Model X cars made after September 2014. Cars made after that cut-off date already have the necessary equipment including sensors, a front-facing camera near to the rear-view mirror, and a radar system under the nose.

Tesla’s autopilot, which was launched in October of last year, enables its cars to parallel park, steer, change lanes on highways and “be summoned” with minimal input from the driver and with reliance on computer software and hardware. There’s also a warning system for side collisions and other safety features.

Tesla normally offers autopilot to customers who pay the extra fee through an over-the-air software download. But Tesla says customers that haven’t paid can now download the software and access it for a month for free to test it out.

For more on Tesla’s autopilot watch our video.

Because the features are enabled by software, Tesla can end autopilot trials remotely. What self-respecting Tesla customer wouldn’t at least want to try it out?

The trial shows how Tesla is looking to bring in more users of its autopilot software. New software customers would not only bring the company a bit more revenue, but it would also help Tesla’s autopilot system become smarter.

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Tesla, which has only shipped a little over 100,000 cars since its founding, uses machine learning and data from drivers to make its autopilot software better. In essence, the more customers use Tesla’s autopilot service, the more data it creates, and the smarter the system becomes.

It’s been rumored that Tesla’s newly unveiled Model 3 vehicle will be one of the cars that will have truly sophisticated autopilot features when it comes to market starting at the end of 2017. To make sure those features are good as possible, Tesla needs to its customers to be guinea pigs in a sense.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk told Fortune late last year that he thinks fully autonomous Tesla cars are only two years away. However, he expects regulators will lag behind by at least a year in approving the technology for widespread use. In some places approval could take five years or more, Musk said.

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