There have been plenty of videos—some frightening, others funny—that show off the capabilities of Tesla's semi-autonomous feature known as Autopilot. The video of a freaked out grandma riding in a Tesla Model S is just one example.
But early Thursday morning Tesla released a video (see below) that aims to illustrate where it's headed: fully autonomous Level 5 driving, which is notable for those who know what that means.
Here's a primer: Autopilot is just "Level 2" on the 0 to 5 scale of autonomy as defined by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and SAE (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers). The Autopilot feature allows Tesla vehicles to automatically steer and change lanes on highways, while maintaining the appropriate distance from other cars. It does well on a highway; it's not designed to navigate more complex environments like city streets. And it requires human intervention.
Tesla as well as other automakers and Google are aiming for level 5, which means the vehicle takes over all safety-critical functions and monitors roadway conditions for an entire trip. In other words, the cars don't need humans to handle any part of the driving or parking. It's the point when drivers become riders.
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Tesla announced Wednesday that all of its cars, including its upcoming Model 3, will be equipped with new hardware such as radar and cameras that will allow the vehicles to reach that Level 5 fully autonomous driving capability. That doesn't mean the cars will be fully autonomous as they roll off the assembly line, however. The company has essentially laid the foundation. The software, or the brains, will still need to be validated and then eventually rolled out via over-the-air updates to the system—a capability that Tesla has used to keep improving its cars over time. The proper regulatory approvals will also need to be sorted out.
The video demonstrates what that final fully autonomous moment might look like.
It's easy to get caught up in the excitement (which is further stoked by the soundtrack) when watching this video. But keep in mind, that the video only provides a glimpse of what Tesla CEO Elon Musk is promising. This is a sunny day: no rain, snow, or dust. And while the video does show a few more complex maneuvers—like recognizing a stop sign and street lights—it doesn't prove the car can handle the millions of odd situations that come when driving in a city.
In short, it's very hard to tell where Tesla stands versus any other company, most notably Google which has been testing its self-driving car software on public city streets for years.