With new Summon upgrade, Tesla cars will valet themselves

A software update for the Tesla Model S and Model X adds Summon, which allows the cars to park themselves after the driver has gotten out. In a few years, Tesla says, drivers will be able to Summon their car from anywhere in the country.

David McNew/Reuters/File
Tesla's Summon feature allows a car to park itself, or to come out of a garage to meet the driver. Here, Tesla CEO Elon Musk shows off a prototype of the Model X SUV at the company's design studio in Hawthorne, Calif. in 2012.

Wake up, shower, drink a cup of coffee, then hit a button on your phone. Your car will drive itself out of your garage and wait for you in the driveway.

A software update released on Sunday for Tesla Model S sedans and Model X SUVs includes a beta version of the Summon feature, which lets the cars themselves handle the business of opening the garage door, pulling in or out, and closing the door behind them. Summon can also be used to have a Tesla squeeze itself into a tight parking spot, the company noted in a blog post.

Summon only works locally for now – the driver must be within a few dozen feet of the car in order to deliver a command – but within a few years, Tesla says, it will “be able to drive anywhere across the country to meet you, charging itself along the way” on the company’s network of free Supercharger stations scattered along highways.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted on Sunday, “In [about] 2 years, summon should work anywhere connected by land & not blocked by borders, [for example] you're in LA and the car is in NY.”

Mr. Musk explained the company’s vision in a press conference given just before the North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit this week. Right now, Musk said, a human driver is a fail-safe for Tesla’s autonomous vehicles: if the car’s sensors encounter a situation they don’t know how to handle, they can turn control of the car back over to the driver for a few minutes. But soon, Musk argues, self-driving software will be better than human drivers, so a car can fail over to a redundant set of automatic controls and sensors rather than to a human driver. 

Once that happens, there’s no technological reason why a Tesla, or any other self-driving car, couldn’t drive itself to meet its owner wherever they happen to be. For example, your car could drop you off at the airport, return home to your garage, then come back to pick you up a few days later when your return flight touches down. The laws governing these sorts of scenarios aren’t clear yet – who’s at fault if a car gets in an accident while no one is behind a wheel? – but Musk says the technology, at least, is just about ready.

Sunday’s software update also made a slight tweak to Tesla’s Autopilot system, limiting a car’s speed to no more than the posted speed limit plus five miles per hour on residential streets and roads that don’t have a painted center line. Last November, Musk said the company would be putting restrictions on Autopilot in response to what he called some “fairly crazy videos” of people using the feature irresponsibly. The new software-enforced speed limit is a way for Tesla to try to make sure drivers don’t thrust Autopilot into situations it’s not yet ready to handle.

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