Tesla Motors plans to start shipping cars with full self-driving capability in the coming weeks in anticipation that regulators will eventually allow the vehicles to operate without any human intervention.
“They will be at the highest level of autonomy,” Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive of the electric car company, said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
“The safety level is at least twice of a person and probably even better,” Musk said.
On Thursday, the company said it plans a ride-sharing service, but provided no details.
In a note to consumers on its website, Tesla said, “Please note also that using a self-driving Tesla for car sharing and ride hailing for friends and family is fine, but doing so for revenue purposes will only be permissible on the Tesla Network, details of which will be released next year.”
Musk said he plans a demonstration drive of a fully self-driving Tesla from Los Angeles to New York by the end of next year. The vehicle will drive, recharge and park itself without a human touching the controls, he said.
The move to get fully autonomous vehicles into the hands of consumers – and following several high profile crashes of Tesla cars driving under the guidance of autonomous features – was seen by analysts as a bold gambit to place the Palo Alto, Calif., automaker ahead of rivals.
“Tesla is pushing the boundary of technology and doing things that no other car company is willing to do,” Mike Ramsey, an analyst at Gartner Inc. told Trucks.com.
“They are loading every car with sensors, even if they aren’t used, then downloading capabilities as they are developed,” Ramsey said. “It all is only possible because of the over-the-air update capability that Tesla employs that allows the company to continually improve the car and fix problems.”
The autonomous driving system will be an $8,000 option for all Tesla models, including the upcoming Model 3, which at an expected price of $35,000 before options, will be the least expensive vehicle in the lineup. Previously, Musk has said all future Tesla vehicles — including its planned trucks — will have autonomous driving capability.
Musk said the automaker plans to roll out the options incrementally as it validates their safety and gets regulatory approval. The feature compares with a $3,000 so-called autopilot option that Tesla offers now and which provides some level of autonomy, mostly in highway driving applications.
He said it will take some time for Tesla to validate the sensor suite and software operating the vehicles and for the automaker to gain regulatory approval.
When the vehicles can drive at what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls Level 5 – without any human intervention –is unclear.
“It is up to the regulators,” Musk said. “Hopefully in the U.S. things don’t become balkanized so the rules are different in every state. In the European Union there will be a uniform standard.”
On Thursday, the company reiterated “that Self-Driving functionality is dependent upon extensive software validation and regulatory approval, which may vary widely by jurisdiction. It is not possible to know exactly when each element of the functionality described above will be available, as this is highly dependent on local regulatory approval.”
Musk said he believes data from the vehicles operating in “shadow mode,” where humans are at the controls, will demonstrate how many crashes would have been prevented by the technology and speed adoption by regulators.
The vehicles will be equipped with eight cameras that will provide 360-degree visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. The system will have twelve ultrasonic sensors to complement the cameras and detect both hard and soft objects. A forward-facing radar will provide additional data to build a digital map of what surrounds the vehicle. It will be capable of seeing through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead, Musk said.
“Full autonomy will enable a Tesla to be substantially safer than a human driver, lower the financial cost of transportation for those who own a car and provide low-cost on-demand mobility for those who do not,” he said.
Earlier this month, the NHTSA estimated 17,775 people died in U.S. from motor vehicle traffic crashes during the first half of this year, a 10 percent increase from the first half of 2015. There have been seven consecutive quarters of year-over-year increases.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Tesla's ride-sharing service plans and its clarification when the operation of full self-driving capability might be allowed in its vehicles.