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Tesla aims for the Model 3 to be the first mass-market autonomous car

It’s fair to say that most of the ~400,000 people who reserved the Tesla Model 3 did it because it will likely become the first long-range relatively affordable electric car to be mass-produced.

But it also became clear that Tesla also aims for the Model 3 to be the first mass-market autonomous car – years ahead of the competition, which is so far an underappreciated feature of the vehicle… and with reasons.

It seems like that fact might not have sunk in with every Model 3 reservation holders and that could be because there are still doubts over Tesla’s ability to deliver a fully autonomous system on its new Autopilot hardware suite, which has been standard on the Model S and X since October 2016.

Tesla’s camera-based approach is regarded as unsafe by a significant part of the industry which either used lidar sensors as their primary sensor or at least as a secondary sensor.

On the other hand, Tesla doesn’t use lidar at all – not even as a failsafe. The company subscribes to the idea that you only need two things in order to deliver a self-driving system safer than a human driver: better sensors and better decision-making than humans.

Tesla’s sensor suite of 8 cameras, 360 ultrasonics, GPS and radar definitely represents a step up from human sensors, which technically only consist of eyes (and ears to a certain degree). Now they need to develop a better brain with ‘Tesla Vision‘ and a better decision-making process when it comes to processing the data from those sensors.

As we reported earlier this week, Tesla is now using 2 out of the 8 cameras on its sensor suite since the 8.1 update. We are already seeing some significant improvements, but it will be very interesting to follow the development in the next few months leading to the release of the Model 3.

Because if the controversy of the Model 3’s user interface over the past few weeks have taught us anything, it is that Tesla seems very confident about its capacity to deliver on autonomous driving for the Model 3. The Model 3’s user interface appears to have been designed with self-driving in mind and Elon Musk seems confident in Tesla’s ability to deliver:

Though it doesn’t mean that it will be available from the start since as he pointed out, the center screen will still serve as an instrument cluster for when the car is being driven manually:

But there’s also another barrier than availability: cost. Like it is the case for the Model S and X, while Tesla is equipping every car with the hardware suite, there’s a cost to unlocking the driver assist and ‘fully self-driving’ features through software updates.

If the Model 3’s user interface is designed for autonomous driving as Musk suggested, it would still only serve those ready to pay a premium for the feature. As it currently stands for the Model S and X, it costs $8,000 to get access to the eventual fully autonomous driving capability.

While it’s not too steep for a vehicle with a $68,000 starting price, it’s different when the starting price is $35,000.

The ‘Tesla Network’, Tesla’s upcoming autonomous ride-sharing service, could play a role in compensating for the cost of unlocking the self-driving feature by paying itself back through loaning your car to the network, but not every Model 3 owner will be willing to do that. It’s still nice to have as an option.

Due to both revolutions happening almost simultaneously, the electrification and automatisation of transport are often linked together. Several automakers are promising that their upcoming electric vehicles will be autonomous – though most legacy automakers have timelines for commercialization between 2019-2021.

Of course, the truth is that the two trends have little to do with each other beyond being both extremely disruptive in the auto industry, which makes it even more interesting that the Model 3 could become both the flagship electric car and flagship autonomous car. Time will tell.

For Model 3 reservation holders, I know there are plenty of other reasons to be interested in the Model 3, but for the sake of this argument, which of the two are you most looking forward to?

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