While Tesla's (NASDAQ:TSLA) third-quarter earnings report may be the primary focus when it comes to the electric-car maker's stock this week, the company also quietly rolled out a beta release of its full self-driving mode to a small group of drivers -- a technology that could eventually morph into an incredibly valuable asset for Tesla.
Here's what we know about the beta release of Tesla's full self-driving mode, as well as a look at what it means for investors.
Meet Tesla's full self-driving beta
Tesla started rolling out the beta version of its full self-driving mode to a limited group of owners on Tuesday night. The new feature was beamed to these vehicles via an over-the-air software update -- the same way Tesla regularly rolls out improvements to its vehicle fleet.
"Will be extremely slow & cautious, as it should," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter.
It's worth emphasizing that Tesla is making it very clear that this driving mode is still in beta. "Full Self-Driving is in early limited access Beta and must be used with additional caution," Tesla warned in the release notes for the new feature. "It may do the wrong thing at the worst time, so you must always keep your hands on the wheel and pay extra attention to the road. Do not become complacent."
Users in the limited group have started posting videos of the beta technology in action on social media, showing the Tesla navigate through roundabouts, stop and go at traffic lights, turn at traffic lights and stop signs, and more.
In Tesla's third-quarter earnings call on Wednesday, Musk said Tesla plans to gradually release it to more drivers. And a wide release of the beta feature could come as early as the end of this year, he said.
There's big money in autonomous driving
Tesla has said it plans to gradually increase the price of its "full self-driving" package, which allows customers to prepay for all the full self-driving features the company will roll out in the future. In July, Tesla increased the price of the software update from $7,000 to $8,000. And now, Tesla is going to increase the price of the feature by another $2,000 on Monday. Earlier this year, Musk said that the feature could eventually be worth "somewhere in excess of $100,000."
Tesla plans to eventually launch an autonomous-driving network in which owners can deploy their vehicles. Customers will be able to earn a share of revenue from the network when their car is active in it. Because of this potential, Musk has said he believes Tesla vehicles could become appreciating assets.
Tesla's beta for full self-driving is still notably very far from a fully autonomous vehicle. Further, there's no guarantee that Tesla's "full self-driving" software will ever be even close to as valuable as the company thinks it will. But it's certainly easy to imagine Tesla better monetizing the software as it improves. Indeed, there's been speculation that the company could even start selling the software as a subscription service.