The "something else" at tonight's Tesla event is Auto Pilot, a new system that combines a forward facing camera and 12 sensors that see 16 feet in every direction and provide a 360-degree view the surroundings. The camera does everything from seeing other cars to reading speed limit signs. Normal fare for luxury cars. Except it will also do a lane change for you just by pressing the turn signal stalk.
After my brief (and scary) run in the P85D, a Tesla driver took me through a course to show off Tesla's Auto-Pilot functionality. It's been built into every car rolling off the assembly line in the past two weeks, and it will be enabled by a software update, according to Musk, in two or three months. Here's how it works.
The sensors keep track of vehicles around you and the lanes in the road. One section of the course is a low-speed slalom; a handful of S turns in a row. The driver enables cruise control, takes his hands off the wheel, and it seamlessly turns left and right and left again, all at around 25 mph – which it automatically slowed for after recognized the speed sign –without any input from the guy in the driver's seat.
Then we get up to a lane change area. He simply applies the left signal and the sensors – which already know there are no vehicles around, because it's constantly monitoring the surroundings – slowly slips into the left lane without any input from the driver. That's the "wow" feature for tonight, and Musk sees it getting better.
"When [Auto Pilot rolls out] it will have the most sophisticated driver assistant functions of any vehicle on the road," says Musk. And the ability to continually tweak the programming through over-the-air updates means it will improve over time. This puts Tesla up to par with the Germans and the Japanese, but takes it a step further with the lane change feature. And at this point, would you expect anything less from Tesla?