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