This is big news, even if you are not into car technology.

In a blog post, the company explained how the patch, called Autopilot, uses the existing sensors in the car to control the speed, braking, and steering on the highway. It feels a bit like a ghost has taken over. An invisible shield will slow the car down according to the traffic in front of you. If a car moves over toward your lane, the Model S will gently move out of the way using a related collision avoidance system. If you flip the turn signal to the right or left, the car will check for traffic and move over autonomously.

That word "autonomously" is an important one. It means the car thinks for itself without you having to hold the steering wheel, put your foot on the brake or gas pedal, and without really worrying too much about a blind-spot or a fender-bender. The idea is to reduce the number of fatal accidents on the road, which stands at around 33,000 per year.

Update: Readers have complained about the news on Twitter and elsewhere. It's true that several cars like the Audi RS7 and even the Chrysler 200 let you go hands-free and feet-free but that is for very short periods. It's becoming more common, but only works for a few minutes at most. The Volvo XC90 can drive for longer periods, but only in very specific conditions. It's also true that Google is working on a fully autonomous car without a steering wheel, but that is for low speeds and isn't available yet. My point is that Tesla has released a feature for hands-free, feet-free driving at normal highway speeds.

What's amazing about this upgrade is that a Model S owner just needs to download it over Wi-Fi. All of the sensors and related technology already exist in the car. There are multiple ultrasonic sensors that scan 16 feet out from the car in all directions.

It's also amazing that a company that started in 2003 with 12,000 employees could beat out GM (started in 1908 and has 216,000 employees) and Google (57,000 employees) in the race to make the self-driving car. It's also a testament about what a smaller group of very smart engineers and product testers can do when they have a singular vision.

My main point of reference here is Zappos, a company with about 1,500 employees that is essentially taking on Amazon with their 150,000 employees to sell shoes and clothing online. Zappos was able to remove all middle managers. Amazon, not so much. There's something about a smaller dedicated team that can take on Big Auto or (ahem) Big Shoe. Tesla has shown how, in just over a decade, you can startle an industry.

Update: I know Amazon owns Zappos. My point was that Zappos was able to make a major management change because they are smaller and still operate like a startup.

Elon Musk first announced Autopilot earlier in the summer. Tesla plans to keep tweaking it and making the car smarter and smarter. You can compare this to how the auto industry works today. Ford first announced Traffic Jam Assist self-driving mode way back in 2012. Hello? You have 187,000 employees; I'm surprised it has taken this long to get the ball rolling. Cadillac announced Supercruise self-driving mode in 2015, but has never specified exactly when this mode will be offered on a production car. It's amazing that Google has been testing autonomous cars since 2012 and seems to get all of the press for it. Yet, there still isn't an actual car you can buy from Google or anyone else that uses their technology.

I've spent the last 10 years meeting regularly with smaller companies, mostly talking about innovation and how they became successful. There's a common theme. Smaller teams work. It's almost impossible to innovate when you have several thousand people working on something, because no one seems to know what's going on. At some large companies, the same teams sometimes invent the same thing concurrently. There's just too much wasted brain power. There's too much organizational clutter.

So, kudos to Tesla for not just inventing the self-driving car, but for proving that merely talking about a concept for future driving is not the same as actually releasing a product.

Published on: Oct 15, 2015