SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk bestowed a New Year's gift on 1,000 customers by activating a suite of new Autopilot features on the company's electric sedans.
The limited dissemination of the Autopilot software upgrade — dubbed Autopilot HW2, or Hardware 2, a reference to the Tesla Model S and X vehicles built after October that are loaded with advanced radar, cameras and ultrasonic sensors — is meant to ensure that any glitches are debugged before a broader rollout.
After initiating the Version 8.1 software update on New Year's Eve, Musk tweeted that Tesla would then "hold to verify no field issues and upload to rest of fleet next week."
The update includes new Autopilot features, some of which remain in beta and are explained with cautionary language that in many cases requires drivers to not only stay vigilant but also keep a grip on the steering wheel.
According to a report on Electrek, a site that closely follows the electric vehicle market, the Enhanced Autopilot features include Forward Collision Warning (you set the distance at which you want to alerted with a chime that a collision might be imminent), Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (the car will speed up or slow down based on the speed of traffic around you) and Low-Speed Autosteer (the vehicle uses lane markings to inch along in traffic while staying centered in a lane).
Both the new cruise control and autosteer features are still in beta, according a series of screen shots provided to Electrek by Tesla owner Kendall Cain. In notes to owners, Tesla says that drivers need to "maintain control and responsibility of your vehicle."
Tesla was in the spotlight throughout 2016 due to a handful of crashes both in the U.S. and abroad that may have been related to either improper use or compromised operation of Autopilot software.
The most publicized incident occurred last May, when Tesla enthusiast and owner Joshua Brown died after his Model S sedan plowed into a truck crossing its path. The Autopilot system didn't see the truck's white side as an object and failed to apply the brakes. Federal regulators are investigating.
Musk has said that Tesla's new HW2 generation vehicles pack so many sophisticated sensors that ultimately they'll be able to provide fully autonomous driving capability by the end of the year. That said, in its 8.1 update Tesla noted that the rollout "will be measured and cautious until we have generated confidence across several hundred million miles of real-world usage."
The coming months are likely to see big strides in autonomous car tech, as companies such as Google, Uber, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Volvo and others look to woo and wow consumers with self-driving features.
Once completed devoid of an automotive presence, the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (Jan. 5-8) is sure to yield the new year's first bit of mobility tech news.
The year also promises to be a pivotal one for Musk and his upstart automobile company. Tesla aims to begin producing its entry-level electric sedan, the $35,000 and up Model 3, next summer. Musk has pinned high hopes on Model 3, specifically a brisk production target that will see Tesla's total vehicle output rocket from 50,000 to 500,000 units a year.
Although Tesla has a market cap of $33 billion, Musk recently decided to make things financially interesting by buying SolarCity, a large solar panel company run by his cousin Lyndon Rive.
Musk had been a majority investor in SolarCity, and his mission now is to turn Tesla's stores into one-stop shopping emporiums for solar panels, electricity storage units (so called Powerwalls and Powerpacks) and electric cars.
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To make things even more complex, Musk is busy building out a massive Gigafactory in the desert east of Reno, Nev., which will make batteries and, eventually, cars. And that's when he's not at the controls of SpaceX, his rocketry company.
Musk also will sit on a business advisory committee assembled by President-elect Donald Trump that includes Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Pespi CEO Indra Nooyi.
Look for big sparks in 2017 from Tesla one way or the other.