Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA) Autopilot Is Late (and Lacking), But That’s Okay

Elon Musk Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA) and SolarCity Corp (SCTY)

Tesla Motors Inc , in a move widely reported over the weekend, has announced that update 7.0 for its in-car software will arrive on the Model S this week. The software update will include the latest advanced features of the Tesla Motors Autopilot tech, but it’s not what Mr. Musk promised would arrive at the end of Summer all those months ago.

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In a tweet sent out in response to a question about whether the update would give the Model S the ability to park itself in the garage and drive itself to the front door in the morning Mr. Musk simply responded “7.1” That means its going to be quite a while before we get the really exciting parts of Autopilot, but that won’t stop Model S owners from getting excited.

Judging Tesla Motors Autopilot

We don’t clearly know how the Tesla Motors Autopilot tech is going to work, but it seems likely that it’s not going to blow the same sort of software from firms like Volvo and Mercedes out of the water. Fred Lambert from Electrek.co managed to get a look at a Model S running Autopilot software in beta. He was impressed with the ride.

Mr. Lambert said that he believes “that upon wide release, Tesla’s Autopilot will include the most advanced commercially available “autonomous” features to date.” He got a go in the car, and it’s presumed he has some sort of experience with other systems in order to back this up, though he doesn’t go into comparisons in the piece.

The most important part of the review was simply the statement that “it works. It might sound obvious, but there’s place for doubts when talking about a production car driving itself on the road today. In the case of the Model S equipped with Tesla’s v7.0 update, you can absolutely drive on the highway for miles without having to touch the steering wheel.”

It appears that Tesla Motors is going to get a real, working Autopilot system out to Model S owners this week. It will impress a swathe of those owners, given the small number of production cars with self-driving features on the roads right now. Looking at the competition, however, it may not be ahead of the pack at all.

Tesla Motors catches up to the competition

Tesla Motors has a reputation for being a leader in all sorts of tech, from its headline EV range to its safety ratings. With Autopilot, though, Elon Musk is behind the likes of the Infiniti Q50, which sells for a base price of under $40,000, and cars from Volvo.

There’s questions about how well those systems work, but we have no solid info on the Model S Autopilot just yet. Given the issues that the firm had heading into the release of the system, it seems likely that there’s going to be problems in the first few weeks of driving, if not for much longer.

Volvo, on the other hand, is set to begin testing a system that would get drivers from point A to point B without needing to drive at all. The firm said on October 5 that it would release the software to 100 XC90s ahead of looking to roll it out to all versions of the car.

While Volvo looks on the cusp of a release of truly ahead of the pack Autopilot tech, Tesla Motors is still struggling to keep up with the promises it made about its own systems. We’re going to have to wait and see how the Autopilot tech performs in the real world, with its limited basket of features, before getting a good feel for how it stacks up.

If Tesla Motors releases Autopilot with a small clutch of features, but if those features work properly it will likely be one of the best systems on the road today. Tesla will be able to build on that base.

Looking at Autopilot promises

Back in the March call in which Mr. Musk revealed that Autopilot was coming to the Tesla Motors Model S, Mr. Musk said that a key feature would be the ability for the car to drive itself around on private property. Mr Musk said the same thing when he first revealed the firm was working on self-driving back in October of 2014.

We’re not getting that feature this week. We’re getting auto-steer lane-keeping, lane changing and auto-parking. Those are good features, and they’ll at least compare well with the self-driving features of other cars, but they’re not the blow-out spectacle that Elon Musk said was coming. In order to get those features Model S owners are going to have to wait until the release of version 7.1.

Given the release schedule of version 7.0 of the software, and the Model X and most other things that Tesla Motors has worked on, it seems likely that version 7.1 is a long long way off.

Tesla Motors Autopilot is ahead of the rest

Elon Musk promised that Autopilot would come to the Model S before the end of Summer and, unless he was using his birth country’s calendar, Tesla Motors has missed that date by a wide wide margin. It’s not clear what delayed Autopilot for so long, and we won’t know if the wait was worth it until later on this week.

It’s likely enough that update 7.0 won’t be great at driving people around. It’s fairly limited in features, and it’s just not the full package that Elon Musk promised the world last March.

We can see that, even if it all works right, it’s not all that much different from the tech offered on other cars, some of them much less expensive than a Model S. Tesla Motors has dropped the features that could really have set the car apart from the first release. That may be a good idea for the firm, but those who bought the Model S based on Mr. Musk’s promises may soon become frustrated with the lack of progress.

Tesla Motors has one thing that other car makers don’t, however. Over-the-air updates make it easy and cheap to get the latest software from the firm. That means Autopilot is only going to get better, especially as Tesla Motors learns from the driving of thousands of cars.

We know that Update 7.0 will fall short of what Elon Musk promised, but we also know we’re going to get Update 7.1, and a litany of other fixes and improvements, at some time in the future. That’s what makes the Model S special, at least until Detroit comes around to sending updates over the air.

Despite the fact that Tesla Motors’ self-driving won’t live up to the claims made about it, in terms of both timing and features, it’s clear that the firm will support the tech for a long time and make it better and better as time goes on.

OTA updates, and the easy long term they allow, is the key feature of the Model S, and despite the problems with self-driving on release it will open the door to a great system six or twelve months down the line.

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