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Tesla edging closer to driverless cars

New Model S upgrade allows cars to park and steer themselves

The feature is available as an over-the-air upgrade to Model S cars purchased after September 2014
The feature is available as an over-the-air upgrade to Model S cars purchased after September 2014

Electric-car maker Tesla has announced an upgrade to its Model S that will allow the car to steer on its own as well as park itself.

Available as an over-the-air upgrade to cars purchased after September 2014, the new feature is a step towards the driverless car concept currently being championed by a number of big Silicon Valley firms. However, at this stage, Tesla is advising Model S owners that, even with the new features, drivers shouldn't take their hands off the wheel.

"We're being especially cautious at this stage so we're advising drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case," said Elon Musk, the company's CEO at a press conference at Tesla's headquarters.

"Over time there will not be a need to have your hands on the wheel."

The new feature, dubbed ‘Autopilot', is designed to work only under certain conditions. If a driver takes his or her hands off the wheel, a light on the dashboard will flash, warning that there are no hands on the wheel. Musk added that, in difficult navigating conditions, the car would emit an audio alert, and then shut down if the alert is ignored.

Indeed, the instructions that come with the new upgrade say that Autopilot is a feature that demands hands-on operation, and that it is simply intended to aid normal driving.

Musk said that, in just three years, Tesla would be able to offer the technology for cars to drive themselves from owners' driveways to work "without you touching anything". However, he added that the regulations around this technology would take much longer to flesh out.

That said, he pointed out that the fleet of Tesla cars on the road was providing plenty of data, which he hopes can be presented to regulators to speed up the transition to automated driving.

"The whole Tesla fleet acts like a network. When one car learns something they all learn it," he said.

"As ... more people enable autopilot, the information about how to drive is uploaded to the network. Each driver is effectively an expert trainer in how the autopilot should work."