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Tesla hastens self-driving future

After pushing the auto industry along toward an electric future, Elon Musk wants to put cars on an accelerated path to driving autonomously, equipping each new Tesla Motors, Inc. model with the hardware needed for full self-driving capability.

Tesla Model X car. (Reuters)

Tesla Model X car.

Every Tesla, including the upcoming Model 3 sedan, will ship with eight cameras and a dozen sensors to give them 360-degree visibility, according to the Palo Alto, California-based company. While drivers won’t be able to let go of the steering wheel yet, that’s a goal after a series of software refinements Tesla makes over time.

Tesla plans to do a Los Angeles-to-New York drive “without the need for a single touch” by the end of 2017, Musk told reporters Wednesday on a conference call.

In building each vehicle with the necessary hardware regardless of whether the customer orders it, Tesla’s making a bet that scale will help to deliver on the aggressive timeline Musk has laid out for fully self-driving cars compared with his competitors. Other carmakers including BMW AG and Ford Motor Co. are taking a slower and step-by-step approaches, offering semi-autonomous driving systems as optional equipment and generally ruling out full self-driving capability until sometime after 2020.

Tesla rose 2.2 percent Wednesday ahead of the announcement, made after the close of trading. The shares have slumped 15 percent this year amid concerns with Tesla’s cash needs and Musk’s plan for the carmaker to acquire money-losing rooftop solar panel installer SolarCity Corp., where he’s also chairman.

Nvidia Computer

Tesla Model S. (EPA)

Tesla Model S. (EPA)

An on-board computer from  Nvidia Corp. will back the camera and ultrasonic sensor system on each new Tesla. The models have 40 times the processing power of previous ones, according to a company blog post. Buyers will choose how much software capability they want to activate for their vehicle, with full autonomous features available for about $8,000.

“The more vehicles out there collecting information (even when the system isn’t ‘operational’) the smarter the system can get,” Joseph Spak, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, said in a note to clients. “Tesla will be the first automaker out there with that ability.”

Tesla’s Autopilot system has already been available on models built since October 2014, roughly vehicles 114,000 worldwide. While the company pivots to the latest hardware, new models will temporarily lack features including automatic braking, collision warnings, lane keeping and active cruise control.

“There are two options people can pick in buying a car: An improved version of Autopilot or full self-driving,” Musk said on the conference call.

Spinal transplant

Current owners of Model S sedans and Model X SUVs won’t be able to retrofit their vehicles with the new hardware due to the complexity involved. “It would be like giving them a spinal cord transplant,” Musk said. “Even if possible, it’s not prudent.”

Autopilot has been under intense scrutiny after a fatal crash in Florida on May 7 prompted probes by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. After two other non-fatal accidents, Consumer Reports called on Tesla to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and to change the Autopilot name to avoid confusion. Dutch regulators have also raised concerns, and Germany has asked the company to stop using the name.