Tesla announces fully self-driving fleet

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Tesla announces fully self-driving fleet

News comes as Autopilot is still under investigation for various crashes.

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Tesla announces fully self-driving fleet

Marco della Cava , USA TODAY 8:31 p.m. EDT October 19, 2016
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Tesla is partnering with Panasonic to supply batteries for its upcoming Model 3. Newslook

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk wants to his company to acquire SolarCity.(Photo: Jessica Brandi Lifland, for USA TODAY)

SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla's fleet is going autonomous.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced Wednesday that its Model S, X and forthcoming Model 3 sedan "will have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver. Eight surround cameras provide 360 degree visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors complement this vision, allowing for detection of both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system."

That constitutes full Level 5 autonomy, which doesn't require any driver involvement. That's the ultimate goal for a range of automakers and tech companies, including Google, Ford and Volvo, which have vowed to produce such self-driving vehicles by 2021.

"It’s all Tesla Vision software, we're not using any third party software for the vision procession," Musk said on a conference call with reporters. "It’s our neural net."

Musk did not say exactly when such technology would be consumer-ready, although he did say regulatory hurdles would have be vaulted first.

"It's not up to us, it's up to the regulators, and we hope things don't become Balkanized and different in every state," he said. "It's a question of what the public and regulators think is appropriate. The system will always be operating in shadow mode, though, so we can gather a lot of sophisticated data to show where software could have acted or not acted."

As for the details of the tech, a release from Tesla mentioned a "forward-facing radar with enhanced processing provides additional data about the world on a redundant wavelength, capable of seeing through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead."

Musk said Tesla's would soon amount to having "a supercomputer in a car," referencing a new computer with 40 times the computing power of the previous generation runs the new Tesla-developed neural net for vision, sonar and radar processing software.

"Together, this system provides a view of the world that a driver alone cannot access, seeing in every direction simultaneously and on wavelengths that go far beyond the human senses," the Tesla release notes.

Musk addressed reporters on a conference call, noting that consumers would have two options when buying a Tesla. "You should be able to go from freeway onramp to exit and maneuver with enhanced Autopilot, then there's full self-driving which will take care of much more complex environments," he said.

Tesla's forthcoming Model 3 sedan, priced at $35,000

Tesla's forthcoming Model 3 sedan, priced at $35,000 and up, is seen as critical to CEO Elon Musk's vision of Tesla as a mass-market electric automaker capable of changing global car-buying habits. (Photo: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY)

He also was upset with the media about focusing on the few accidents that may have been related to Autopilot. "If you're dissuading people from autonomous driving, you're killing people," he said, referring to the million-plus people who die world-wide die in cars due to human error.

Tesla shares (TSLA) closed up 2% Wednesday, and trading was flat after hours.

Prior to the reveal, which Musk delayed from Monday, analysts speculated that the automaker could be unveiling an upgrade to its Autopilot system, which remains under investigation by federal regulators after recent crashes. Musk has said that his vehicles will be making significant leaps with regard to their self-driving abilities, specifically in the arena of computer vision capabilities.

Others guesses included details about a possible Tesla truck. That category remains of interest to technology companies looking to automate vehicles that spend a good deal of their road time going straight for hours at a time. Uber, which recently began testing self-driving cars and picking up passengers near its Pittsburgh research facility, spent $670 million to buy self-driving truck startup Otto.

In the run-up to the product announcement, Tesla made news with an announcement earlier this week that it plans to collaborate with Panasonic on the production of photovoltaic cells and modules in Buffalo, N.Y., for solar panels, a move that could help bolster support for the electric car maker's acquisition of rooftop solar provider SolarCity. A shareholder vote for the approval of that deal takes place on Nov. 17.

Panasonic is already a Tesla partner. It produces the small battery cells that fuel Tesla's electric vehicles, and its engineers are working with Tesla employees at the company's mushrooming Gigafactory outside Reno, Nev., to create a battery assembly line for future Tesla vehicles, thereby eliminating the need to take delivery from Japan.

Tesla and SolarCity both report quarterly results next week.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava @marcodellacava

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