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Tesla’s First Autonomous Vehicle May Arrive Before the Model 3

The man leading Tesla’s autonomous driving technology says he isn’t planning to hold any self-driving features back for the Model 3, due in late 2017.

When Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk recently unveiled the company’s low-cost Model 3 vehicle due for release late in 2017, it was far from complete. The final interior design, including the design of the steering wheel, is still unknown.

Some commentators saw that and tweets from Musk saying there was still much to reveal and that the car would “feel like a spaceship” as evidence that the Model 3 will be the company’s—perhaps the world’s—first truly autonomous car.

But when Sterling Anderson, who leads development of Tesla’s self-driving Autopilot technology, was asked point blank Tuesday if the Model 3 would be the first autonomous vehicle, he dismissed the idea that it would represent some kind of step change. And he suggested Tesla could create significantly more autonomous cars before the Model 3’s debut.

“We will not hold any technology for Model 3 that we have not released already when it’s ready on other models,” he told MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief, Jason Pontin, at the EmTech Digital conference in San Francisco.

Anderson said that Tesla eschews the concept of model years used by other automakers. When new features are ready, they are put straight into the models already in production, he said.

“Our vehicles will receive the latest technology when we have it,” said Anderson. “Models S and X will continue to lead the way for a while in improvements.”

That suggests that the Tesla 3 won’t be Tesla’s first autonomous vehicle. Instead, when Tesla figures out how to have its vehicles drive themselves in a wider range of situations than just on highways and driveways, as its Autopilot and Summon features allow, all its vehicles will get those capabilities at the same time.

Anderson mentioned that his team is looking at how to automate urban driving and handling intersections. His remarks about how the company plans to introduce new features like those match how the company handled the rollout of its current autonomous driving technology.

When the Model S launched in 2012, it lacked the sensors and other hardware needed to drive itself on the highway. Then in late 2014 Tesla started adding new sensors and electronically controlled brakes to all Model S vehicles, saying they were for a new emergency braking feature. A year later it offered people with those vehicles the option to turn on self-driving features (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2016: Tesla Autopilot”).

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