Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk made waves last fall when he announced that "Autopilot" functionality was coming to Tesla's Model S sedan.
Tesla's Autopilot is a system that will, in time, provide some limited self-driving features. All Teslas now ship with the required hardware installed, and the electric-car maker will gradually add the features to existing cars via over-the-air software updates.
Musk's announcement excited investors: It seemed to be more proof that Tesla is the most technologically advanced carmaker in the world.
But here's the thing: When you look at what the Autopilot system actually does, it's not that advanced. In fact, to some extent, Tesla is playing catch-up to its bigger rivals.
Right now, Tesla is still behind its luxury-car rivals
Tesla said its Autopilot system will use the cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors that have been standard on every Model S built since last fall to "automatically drive Model S on the open road and in dense stop and go traffic."
Most of the features that will eventually make up the Autopilot system have yet to be released. Right now, Teslas with the Autopilot hardware have adaptive cruise control, blind-spot and lane-drift warning systems, active emergency braking, and a system that reads speed limit signs and adjusts the car's speed accordingly.
None of those features are unique to Tesla, although the company's software implementation of them may differ from rivals'. Many new cars now have adaptive cruise control and similar warning systems. Traffic-sign recognition might sound cutting-edge, but Mercedes-Benz and BMW (OTC:BAMXF) both introduced such systems in Europe way back in 2008, and several rivals have since followed suit.
In other words, so far, Tesla's Autopilot is still behind its luxury-car rivals. But the game might get more interesting soon.
Musk has promised a lot more for Autopilot
Here's what's Tesla Autopilot will eventually do, according to Musk:
- Hand-and-foot-free driving. Musk said Tesla owners will soon be able to let the car do the driving on highways. Teslas with Autopilot will be able to keep themselves in their lane (with the ability to control steering to correct course) and maintain a safe distance from the car in front. Again, the basic pieces of the technology have been around for a bit -- Toyota's (NYSE:TM) Lane Keeping Assist and adaptive cruise control add up to much the same functionality, for instance, but drivers aren't supposed to take their hands off the wheel. Mercedes' Intelligent Drive system was the first to fully integrate the technology into a hands-free system for stop-and-go highway traffic. General Motors' Cadillac and Volkswagen Group's Audi will have systems similar to Intelligent Drive next year.
- Automatic lane change. Turn on your turn signal while driving on the highway, and your Tesla will automatically, and safely, change lanes for you, hands-free, Musk promises. BMW is thought to be working on a similar system, but the closest equivalents from BMW and others right now are warning systems that let you know when it's safe to (manually) change lanes. (It's worth noting that some Toyota engineers have expressed skepticism as to whether Tesla's hardware is adequate to safely change lanes without a driver's intervention.)
- Self-parking. Your Tesla will be able to learn the layout of your property so that it can drop you at your door and then park itself, Musk said. Ford has shown a somewhat similar system that parks the car without a driver inside, and BMW has announced a similar system for its all-new 7 Series sedan, due this fall -- but BMW's system will be limited to backing into and out of very tight spaces via remote control. It doesn't appear to have the ability to find your garage on its own.
- "Summoning." It's almost the self-parking system in reverse -- Musk said owners will be able to "summon" their Tesla with a smartphone command. Once summoned, the car will (slowly, using its ultrasonic sensors to avoid obstacles) come to pick up the owner. Even better, Musk promised, if your Tesla's Calendar feature is turned on, the car will know when it's time for you to go and come to pick you up, with the climate control, stereo, and other features set to your preferences.
"Summoning" is a cool trick, and no other automaker is offering that feature right now. But the reason probably has as much to do with their legal departments as with their engineers: The legalities around cars driving themselves without a human on board are still murky. Tesla's way around the legal concerns is to insist the system can only be used on private property -- for now -- although it's not clear if the system's software will enforce that, if and when the feature arrives.
Long story short: Tesla's software engineers have come up with a couple of tricks that the big guys aren't offering (yet). Assuming Tesla actually makes all of these features available soon, the Silicon Valley company will be able to claim some unique functionality. But Tesla's hardware isn't significantly different from its rivals', and the Tesla Autopilot is largely about playing catch-up to the luxury-car leaders --it's not a huge advance.
Autopilot is cool, but it's not that far ahead
None of this is a knock on Tesla. It's just an acknowledgement that the competition hasn't been sleeping; while its engineers (and legal departments) might be more conservative than Tesla's, technology already on the market today is more advanced than many Tesla investors seem to realize.
There's no doubt, at least in this Fool's mind, that Tesla's software chops are the best in the car business. It's an open secret that -- until recently, at least -- most of the big automakers didn't really have software engineers at all. Instead, they had electrical engineers writing their software, and not very well.
But that is changing, fast. The big guys have caught on to Tesla's advantage, and several automakers have already opened new offices in Silicon Valley to boost their software-engineering prowess. Can Tesla stay a step ahead? We'll find out.