Here comes a fully hands-free Tesla.
Autonomous driving is measured by levels: 0 is considered to have no self-driving features, while level 5 is hands-free, human-less mobility to the point where steering wheels and pedals aren't even needed.
The highest level we expect this year comes from the Audi A8, which will boast level 3 autonomous driving. But is Tesla Inc. (TSLA) aiming to change that?
Mired in continued controversy over its Autopilot program, CEO Elon Musk said in June that customers should receive an over-the-air update for its self-driving program in the next week or so.
These updates aren't common for the tech-heavy Model 3, S and X vehicles made by Tesla. However, a new announcement has autonomous driving enthusiasts excited on Monday.
The automaker is apparently set to release Version 9 of its Autopilot program in August. At least, that's according to a recent tweet from Musk. In it, he also said, "To date, Autopilot resources have rightly focused entirely on safety. With V9, we will begin to enable full self-driving features."
Given how much debate swarms around a name like Tesla, some will surely debate the "focused entirely on safety" part of Musk's comment. But we won't do that here. Instead, we'll focus on the other part of his tweet, which said the version will focus on enabling full self-driving features. In the past, Tesla has made the case that its Autopilot program needed drivers' full attention and hands on the steering wheel. Of course, many customers ignored these warnings and in some cases it's resulted in accidents and fatalities.
The controversy stems from a few things, beginning with its name: Autopilot. It would suggest that the car is capable of maneuvering itself from point A to point B on its own. Of course, that's the end goal for Tesla and it likely wanted a name that matched its capabilities. But it made some consumers feel the current program was more capable than it really was.
Second, it's hard to have a vehicle that can navigate you down the highway or through a country road without your intervention most of the time. For some, that makes it hard to keep their hands on the steering wheel or feet on the pedals. Admittedly, I don't know if I would stay 100% focused on the drive either. That's resulted in accidents, though, and another part of why some are upset with the automaker.
What Can We Expect?
The world of autonomous driving is moving much faster than anyone thought possible. We here at TheStreet have been hammering that concept home for months now. Be it with the incredible advances by Nvidia Corporation (NVDA) or the big contracts Intel Corporation (INTC) has received from European automakers.
Perhaps it's with General Motors Co. (GM) plans to implement more self-driving features in its Cadillac lineup, or its business concept of driverless taxis. On the latter, we could also be talking about Ford Motor Co. (F) or Alphabet Inc. (GOOG) (GOOGL) via its Waymo unit, which recently increased its partnership with Fiat (FCAU) for more than 60,000 vehicles and is working on its launch of robo-taxi services.
In any regard, Tesla doesn't plan to miss out on the self-driving fun festival. But just what might we see in its driverless capabilities?
The wording of Musk's tweet is important: Tesla will "begin to enable" fully autonomous features. My guess would be that this update does not support Level 4 autonomous driving. Instead, I would expect Autopilot Version 9 to support various Level 3 autonomous driving capabilities.
As we covered in a deeper breakdown of autonomous driving levels:
"There is a noteworthy shift from Level 2 to Level 3 self-driving, where the vehicle can safely monitor the environment on its own, rather than depend on the driver to do so. This doesn't mean drivers should recline back, put their feet on the dash and take a quick doze on the way home from the office.
But it does mean that the vehicle can navigate a number of different driving scenarios while simultaneously controlling car speed and steering. Level 3 autonomous driving can't navigate all scenarios, nor is it intended for full-time use."
In the company's recent annual shareholder meeting, Musk talked about going from highway on-ramp to highway off-ramp via fully autonomous capabilities. I would bet that's something Tesla's attempting to do, and of course include other fully autonomous aspects as well. So will Tesla be the first to offer fully autonomous driving? It might, but we'll need to see what progress the automaker makes later this year.