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America's highways will soon be hosting tens of thousands of cars that drive themselves - sort of. Last year, the electric carmaker Tesla started putting cameras and sensors into its Model S vehicles, making it possible one day for those machines to become the driver's eyes and ears and even hands. And today is that day. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: The way Tesla's chosen to deliver this feature to car owners is peculiar. But let's start with what self-driving even means. I'll just jump in.
MATT SCHULWITZ: Great.
SHAHANI: I'm at Tesla headquarters, slipping into a sedan with spokesman Matt Schulwitz. I move back my seat, and off we go into the streets of Palo Alto.
SCHULWITZ: So as we start driving along, you'll see some changes on the instrument panel here.
SHAHANI: Where cars once had normal dashboards, there's a computer screen. And in just a few minutes, a little icon lights up. Schulwitz says it's the auto steer symbol.
SCHULWITZ: That means the car has confidence in the road conditions, and you're ready to activate autopilot.
SHAHANI: There's a little handle for cruise control. I pull it towards me twice and it beeps.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
SCHULWITZ: Just like that. Now you can see that...
SHAHANI: Do I need to keep my foot on the accelerator?
SCHULWITZ: No, nope. So it'll...
SHAHANI: Whoa, the wheel's moving on its own.
And my foot is off the accelerator. My hands and feet are doing nothing and the car is moving. It's actually moving toward an intersection with a stoplight and a jogger going by. But it's not slowing down.
SCHULWITZ: Wait, so tap the break.
SHAHANI: I hit the brake hard. I got nervous.
Would it have stopped on its own?
SCHULWITZ: So not right now. So it's - really, the system is optimized right now for highway driving.
SHAHANI: OK, would have been nice to have a warning about that. The self-driving Tesla doesn't read stop signs and lights yet. It's not ready for sharp turns, and it's definitely not an off-roading vehicle. But on the highway, it shows an impressive amount of caution.
SCHULWITZ: Quick left here - left, left...
SHAHANI: Got it.
SHAHANI: OK, my bad.
We merge onto the I-280, where there are lots of cars and even huge semis. I activate auto steering again and put my left turn signal on. I want the Tesla to change lanes for me, and it does but not right away. It inches forward, then pulls back.
It's kind of like it paused and went back just now and then did it again.
SCHULWITZ: Yeah, just because that car crept up on us there.
SHAHANI: The car behind us was accelerating. I would have tried to cut it off, but the self-driving Model S has more self-restraint.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
SCHULWITZ: So that's that audible chime that we were talking about.
SHAHANI: I wasn't watching the dashboard when the car gave me a written prompt to take over, so then it beeped at me, softly. And back in the parking lot, it didn't need me at all to parallel park.
SCHULWITZ: Even out the spacing...
SHAHANI: It's a perfectionist.
The Tesla Model S is not the first self-driving car. But this one is different because it expects teamwork. Driving it is like learning a ballroom dance. You've got a partner and you're not sure who should lead. When your partner does lead, you really enjoy it.
ELON MUSK: But in the short term, I think it's very important that people exercise caution...
SHAHANI: Tesla founder Elon Musk.
MUSK: Because the software, it's very new.
SHAHANI: Tesla is not making the cars self-driving by adding new parts. The hardware already existed, passively, inside the vehicles it sold. And today, over the internet, the company is sending out the code to activate it for anyone who bought a $2500 subscription. Musk says cars should get new features online, much like laptops and smartphones do.
MUSK: And that's, I think, also just what consumers expect these days. It's kind of odd to have a computing device that's not connected.
SHAHANI: He also says drivers should keep their hands on the steering wheel for now. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
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