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Tesla Motors, Inc.'s Autopilot Is "a Breakthrough Technology"

By Daniel Sparks - Mar 2, 2016 at 5:35PM

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MIT Technology Review believes Tesla's semi-autonomous driving technology is poised to "have a chance at solving a big problem."

In 2015, Tesla's (TSLA 5.57%) vehicles were equipped with the ability to automatically steer, cruise, brake, and even change lanes on the highway -- a feature the company refers to as Autopilot. And MIT Technology Review has some praise for the technology, recently listing it among its top 10 breakthrough technologies of 2016.

Here's what there is to know about Autopilot -- and why MIT Technology Review thinks you need to know about it.

Model S with Autopilot engaged. Image source: Tesla Motors.

What is Autopilot?
In 2014, electric-car maker Tesla Motors started equipping every Model S it shipped with a suite of cameras and sensors purposed to help the vehicle automatically navigate the highway from on-ramp to highway off-ramp, albeit requiring the driver to stay alert and keep their hands on the wheel.

But it wasn't until late 2015 that the technology in these vehicles was fully enabled.

"[T]he hardware sat there, waiting, waiting, and gathering reams of data," wrote Ryan Bradley for MIT Technology Review. "A year later, last October 14, the company sent a software update to the 60,000 sensor-laden cars it had sold in that time."

The hardware suite enabling this technology included a forward radar, 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors, a forward-looking camera, and a digitally controlled electric-assist braking system.

I can personally attest to the technology's accuracy. In an attempt to judge the technology's accuracy, I set out to drive as far as possible with autopilot enabled in Tesla's Model S without having to take control of the wheel or touch any pedals. I made it for 61 miles.

The reference to Tesla's autopilot technology includes all of the company's driver-assist features, also including automatic parking.

Why is the technology so important?
To be listed among MIT Technology Review's top breakthrough technologies, the tech needed to "have a chance at solving a big problem" and potential to open up new opportunities. Furthermore, all 10 of the breakthrough technologies "had an impressive milestone in the past year or are on the verge of one," according to MIT Technology Review.

Image source: Tesla Motors.

Tesla's automatic steering, in particular, represented "a giant leap toward full autonomy," or driverless cars, according to Bradley.

Bradley isn't alone in his praise for the technology. Car and Driver recently dubbed Tesla's tech the "clear winner" among what the magazine considered to be the world's most comprehensively equipped vehicles with semi-autonomous capabilities.

Bradley explained Tesla's attempt to make progress toward autonomous vehicles:

With its incremental approach, Tesla stands in contrast to Google and other companies that have small test fleets gathering data in hopes of someday launching fully autonomous cars. For Tesla, its customers and their partially autonomous cars are a widely distributed test fleet. The hardware required for true autonomy is already in place, so the transition can play out in software updates. Musk has said that could be technically feasible -- if not legally so -- within two years.

Tesla has said recently that it will continue to improve both Autopilot and its recently introduced Summon feature, which enables owners to park and unpark their vehicles without a driver, so that they increasingly converge, bringing Tesla closer and closer to fully autonomous vehicles.

"Autopilot began this process on the highways. Summon begins it in your garage. As the technology advances, the complementary capabilities of each will converge," Tesla explained in a blog post. 

Of course, achieving full autonomy won't be easy. Legal hurdles alone may be difficult to overcome. But this isn't stopping Tesla from trying to get to this point quickly.

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