The company has placed safety restrictions that limit the car to just above the speed limit on streets without central dividers and force it to slow down when roads curve.
Elon Musk, Tesla chief executive, said the update was a “baby step” towards the cars being able to drive themselves across the country, summoned by an owner in another city.
“I might be slightly optimistic on this but I think within two years you will be able to summon your car from across the country. If you are in New York and your car is in Los Angeles, it will find its way to meet you wherever your phone is,” he said.
To make this happen, Tesla will need to improve the hardware and software on its cars, adding extra sensors, cameras and a separate electronics system that could take over if the first system fails.
Mr Musk said it will also need federal authorities and states to work together to create standard rules for self-driving cars. “It would be pretty weird if car’s behaviour has to change when it crosses a state border,” he said.
So far, no evidence exists that any of the self-driving features on the Model S have resulted in accidents, Mr Musk said, even when people did “pretty crazy things like getting in the back seat”.
Tesla is gathering data from every Model S to improve the whole fleet’s driving. All the cars combined drive about a million miles a day, the company said.
“The car can even detect if a fairly small dog walks past. It is not absolutely perfect but it is probably better than a person right now,” Mr Musk said.
Shares in Tesla fell 12 per cent to $211 in the first five days of this year, after Tesla reported that total vehicle deliveries in the fourth quarter came in at the low end of its guidance range. The company delivered 17,400 cars last quarter, compared with its previous forecast of 17,000 to 19,000 vehicles.
The announcement of the update to Tesla’s operating system came as carmakers gathered for the Detroit Auto Show, where companies will show off their latest attempts at bringing more technology into the car. It also comes days after carmakers joined the technology industry for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with GM, Ford and VW among the companies making announcements.
Trip Chowdry, an analyst at Global Equities Research, said existing carmakers were “destined to fail” if they could not compete with Tesla by providing remote software updates that do not require a visit to a dealership.
“Tesla continues to push the innovation boundaries, and has at-least a 10-year technology lead,” he said.
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