Tesla's Autopilot self-drive interface in its new Model 3 signals the carmaker is already prepping its cars for Level 4 driving years ahead of the competition.
The incremental-yet-revealing modification consists of the Model 3's Autopilot gearshift option. Unlike the cruise control-like Autopilot in the Model S and X, the Model 3's Autopilot is activated with the gearshift, according to spy shots taken of the interior ahead of the launch (a Tesla spokesperson told Driverless the company will officially disclose the vehicle's specs during the "coming days").
This does not mean too much for the Model 3's Level 2 and even Level 3 driving, because the driver is going to need to keep their hands near and around the steering wheel when the car is in driverless mode.
However, adding Autopilot as a gearshift option makes more sense for Level 4 driving (Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk recently said during a TED talk that Tesla will offer Level 5 in less than two years). This is because, in the not-so-distant future, you will be able to activate Level 4 by just pressing on the gearshift, probably from the backseat, before you take a nap as the vehicle takes you where you want to go. On an ergonomic level, doing that is a lot different than remaining behind the wheel as your hands remain within reach of the cruise control lever to turn Autopilot on and off.
Tesla has also reportedly updated the on-screen instruction manuals for its Model S and X models to describe how to activate Autopilot with the gearshift although these models do not offer this option.
Besides the Autopilot gearshift function, Musk has said the Model 3's Autopilot functionality will be the same as the Model S and Model X. Tesla will continue to add improvements to Autopilot with over-the-air updates for all three models.
However, we have not yet been able to check firsthand if the Tesla 3 has different hardware for Autopilot, besides the gearshift, although Musk has hinted in the past that all three models will share the same sensor and neural network hardware. Last year, Tesla said all models it would make as of October 2016 would have eight surround cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and forward-facing radar. After ending its supply relationship with Mobileye for cameras, Musk also has said camera technology is enough to give cars with superhuman driving capabilities without using LiDAR.
However, in order for Tesla models to have Level 5 capabilities by the end of 2019, it will almost certainly have to revamp its cars' sensor and neural network computer hardware when it launches its next-generation Model S and X. In the meantime, the Model 3's gearshift offers a small hint of what is yet to come for a Tesla Level 4 driving experience.
Momenta, a China-based firm that makes software for driverless vehicles, has raised $46 million from investors, which include Daimler. Lead by NIO Capital, the other investors, include Shunwei Capital, Sinovation Ventures, and Unity Ventures. Momenta software is used for neural network management of data gathered with vehicle sensors.