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Tesla Cars Just Got an 'Autopilot' Mode

Teslas can now change lanes, drive on the highway, and park themselves autonomously.

Tesla Motors has turned on "autopilot" for Model S and Model X owners—that means the cars can more or less drive themselves on the freeway, with automated, turn signal-controlled lane changes and passing.

It's the most radical feature Tesla has ever delivered via an over-the-air update, downloaded to the car much like you'd download a new version of Android or iOS to your phone.

"Car makers need to think of their cars as connected devices, that the way a car should operate, like your cell phone or laptop so you can do improvements over the air," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at a press event in California Wednesday, according to Wired (full video of the press event is not yet online).

Over-the-air updates are the future of all cars, and automated driving probably is, too. Musk announced earlier this year that all Tesla cars would be getting incremental levels of automation, with fully autonomous driving possible within three years. (That's an ambitious timeline, and it's worth noting that both Tesla and SpaceX have historically missed most of their deadlines, sometimes by several years).

For now, drivers will be able to pull their hands off the wheel while driving on the highway—the car will detect lane-dividing lines and can keep the car in the center. The car is also able to change lanes automatically when a driver uses the turn signal (the car will detect whether there's an obstacle or another car in the way), and it will also be able to parallel park itself. Drivers can retake control of the car simply by turning the steering wheel slightly.

I haven't gotten the chance to try out autopilot (nor have I ever driven a Tesla), but journalists who have say the technology appears to work quite well. Musk said he's been beta-testing the software in his own Tesla for several months, and a Tesla owner who somehow managed to get the software early has posted a video of himself driving in autopilot mode in YouTube.

"We tell drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case, to exercise caution in the beginning," Musk said Wednesday. "Over time, long term, you won't have to keep your hands on the wheel—we explicitly describe this as beta."