1. Immune Engineering

    Immune Engineering

    Genetically engineered immune cells are saving the lives of cancer patients. That may be just the start.

  2. Precise Gene Editing in Plants

    Precise Gene Editing in Plants

    CRISPR offers an easy, exact way to alter genes to create traits such as disease resistance and drought tolerance.

  3. Conversational Interfaces

    Conversational Interfaces

    Powerful speech technology from China’s leading Internet company makes it much easier to use a smartphone.

  4. Reusable Rockets

    Reusable Rockets

    Rockets typically are destroyed on their maiden voyage. But now they can make an upright landing and be refueled for another trip, setting the stage for a new era in spaceflight.

  5. Robots That Teach Each Other

    Robots That Teach Each Other

    What if robots could figure out more things on their own and share that knowledge among themselves?

  6. DNA App Store

    DNA App Store

    An online store for information about your genes will make it cheap and easy to learn more about your health risks and predispositions.

  7. SolarCity’s Gigafactory

    SolarCity’s Gigafactory

    A $750 million solar facility in Buffalo will produce a gigawatt of high-efficiency solar panels per year and make the technology far more attractive to homeowners.

  8. Slack

    Slack

    A service built for the era of mobile phones and short text messages is changing the workplace.

  9. Tesla Autopilot

    Tesla Autopilot

    The electric-vehicle maker sent its cars a software update that suddenly made autonomous driving a reality.

  10. Power from the Air

    Power from the Air

    Internet devices powered by Wi-Fi and other telecommunications signals will make small computers and sensors more pervasive.

Tesla Autopilot

The electric-vehicle maker sent its cars a software update that suddenly made autonomous driving a reality.

  • by Ryan Bradley
  • In October 2014, Elon Musk’s electric-car company began rolling out sedans with a dozen ultrasonic sensors discreetly placed around both bumpers and sides. For an additional $4,250, Tesla customers could purchase a “technology package” that used the sensors, as well as a camera, a front radar, and digitally controlled brakes, to help avoid collisions—essentially allowing the car to take over and stop before crashing. But mostly, the hardware sat there, waiting, waiting, and gathering reams of data. A year later, last October 14, the company sent a software update to the 60,000 sensor-laden cars it had sold in that time. The software update was officially named Tesla Version 7.0, but its nickname—Autopilot—was what stuck.

    Tesla Autopilot
    • Breakthrough A car that drives itself safely in a variety of conditions.
    • Why It Matters Car crashes caused by human error kill thousands of people a day worldwide.
    • Key Players in Autonomous Driving - Ford Motor
      - General Motors
      - Google
      - Nissan
      - Mercedes
      - Tesla Motors
      - Toyota
      - Uber
      - Volvo

    It did in fact give drivers something similar to what airline pilots employ in flight. The car could manage its speed, steer within and even change lanes, and park itself. Some of these features, like automatic parallel parking, were already on offer from other car companies (including Mercedes, BMW, and General Motors), but the self-steering was suddenly, overnight, via a software update, a giant leap toward full autonomy.

    This story is part of our March/April 2016 Issue
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    Tesla customers, delighted, posted videos of themselves on the highway, hands free, reading the paper, sipping coffee, and even, once, riding on the roof. Some of these are, it’s worth pointing out, illegal acts. Autopilot existed in a legal gray area,  but it was a grand gesture toward an ever nearing future, one that will reshape not just the car and our relationship with it but the road and our entire transportation infrastructure.

    Which is why I jumped at the chance to borrow a car with Autopilot for a few days and drive it—or let it drive me—around Los Angeles.

    Like many other features in the car, Autopilot can be activated or shut off from a touch screen. It also turns off with a tap on the brakes.

    Everyone wanted to know what it felt like, the strange surrender of allowing a car to take control. The only moments that seemed like magic were when the car parked itself or changed lanes, mostly because watching a steering wheel turn all on its own was unnatural and ghostly. Other than that, I was amazed by how quickly I got used to it, how inevitable it began to feel. As a Tesla engineer told me—on condition of anonymity, because the company won’t let anyone but Musk speak publicly these days—the thing that quickly becomes strange is driving a car without Autopilot. “You’ll feel like the car is not doing its job,” he said. 

    Autopilot could even handle twisty Mulholland Drive, though it shut itself off in the middle of particularly tight turns.

    The car can’t start in Autopilot; it requires a set of circumstances (good data, basically) before you can engage the setting. These include clear lane lines, a relatively constant speed, a sense of the cars around you, and a map of the area you’re traveling through—roughly in that order. L.A.’s abundant highway traffic is the ideal scenario for Autopilot, not simply because of all the data it makes available to the ultrasonic sensors—which use high-frequency sound waves to identify objects up to 16 feet away—but also because humans are awful in traffic. We are bad at estimating distances to begin with, and we are constantly trying to switch lanes when the next one looks faster, causing accidents in the process. With Autopilot, I no longer had to stare at the bumper ahead of me, and I could look around to see the variety of bad decisions drivers make, stopping and starting and stopping again. Meanwhile, my car accelerated and slowed more smoothly than it ever could have with me in charge.

    With its incremental approach, Tesla stands in contrast to Google and other companies that have small test fleets gathering data in hopes of someday launching fully autonomous cars. For Tesla, its customers and their partially autonomous cars are a widely distributed test fleet. The hardware required for true autonomy is already in place, so the transition can play out in software updates. Musk has said that could be technically feasible—if not legally so—within two years.

    The day after I returned the Tesla, my fiancée and I were on an L.A. freeway and saw someone, speeding, cross three lanes, cutting in front of several drivers. As the traffic stopped, the car behind us came in way too fast and crashed into our bumper, which fell right off. The future, I thought, was practically here, and it couldn’t arrive soon enough.

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