The dream of every commuter in the world is the ability to check your phone, read the newspaper, and sip your coffee without having to watch the road.

We know there are a small handful of drivers who do this already. (It's dangerous, so please stop.) Last week, Elon Musk announced the Tesla Model S will "soon" be able to perform this autonomous driving feat, as soon as this summer. In fact, if you own the car, it will be nothing more than a simple software upgrade. You'll engage an autopilot mode, sit back, read a book, and let the car drive you to work all on its own. That's a win, right?

Wait. Hold the presses for a moment. Let's shift into reverse and back up a little (ahem). I first wrote about autonomous cars way back in 2007. At the time, I had the privilege of sitting in the passenger seat as a Stanford engineer showed how the autonomous car, known as Stanley, could drive on its own. Flash forward to late 2014, and I experienced another self-driving miracle: speeding down a California highway with Kyle Vogt, the founder of Cruise Automation. The car drove itself for a few miles in heavy traffic, something I still vividly remember.

The dream of autonomous driving is still just that--a dream. Cruise is still perfecting its technology. For Elon Musk, the dream is just getting a bit closer to reality.

Many recent vehicles--like the 2016 Acura ILX small sedan I drove just last week and the sportier 2016 Audi RS 7 I drove a few weeks before that--have an automated self-steering mode. It's not quite the same as full autonomous mode (in which the car can drive at any speed on any road without any input from the driver), but it sure feels intelligent.

The car senses the lane markings on a highway and keeps you centered on the road. The technology is smart because it can monitor the road at all times. Since 35,000 people die in accidents each year, according to the National Safety Council, a startup like Cruise can solve a truly urgent problem.

Tesla is encroaching on the Cruise market segment, of course. And the company is doing it through software. Musk announced a major breakthrough last week that will allow Model S owners to use autopilot mode for long stretches of the road--conceivable for an entire commute on the highway. The tech is not quite as groundbreaking as you might think, since the car probably won't be able to handle urban traffic conditions at low speeds and won't swerve suddenly to avoid obstacles. (A Tesla spokesperson did not confirm or deny the specific functionality.)

Instead, the Model S will likely function like the Acura ILX I mentioned earlier--steering automatically on the highway--but for several hours, or an entire commute. The main reason the Acura ILX doesn't engage for more than a few minutes is due to a safety issue. The sensors work fine for a mile or two. After that, the car relinquishes control to make sure you are paying attention. In fact, the car flashes a warning symbol to get your attention.

There's a reason for these safety precautions. Acura, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and other automakers know autonomous driving laws in states like California, Florida (where it is technically legal to text and drive if you are in autonomous mode), and Nevada provide a way to test self-driving cars. Yet there's no real precedent for letting people use this mode as they choose and drive to work each day. When Google tests self-driving cars, it is doing so with paid drivers under the guise of testing for bugs. There are also many unanswered questions about insurance liabilities.

Yet Tesla just might make it all work. Musk always seems to find a way to win. In fact, it's his entrepreneurial mindset that has cleared many roadblocks. Don't want to bother with locally owned car dealers? Just build your own stores that sell Tesla cars. Need to make sure your customers can get a fast charge-up? Just install a network of Supercharger stations. There are now more than 400 of them, and you can drive a Model S from one end of the U.S. to the other.

The autopilot mode is a good example of pushing out a feature your customers are demanding and figuring out later how to make it more viable. It's a strategy that has worked quite well for Facebook. I'm betting it will become a big hit with Tesla owners this summer, that a few states might make it illegal, but that smaller startups like Cruise will ultimately benefit the most. After all, the Model S starts at just under $70,000. The Cruise aftermarket kit for an Audi S4 will cost just $10,000. That's quite a steal.

Published on: Mar 23, 2015
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