Tesla Model Y: Electric SUV May Be Elon Musk's First Full Self-Driving Car

Tesla’s Model Y could be the company’s first-ever vehicle to ship with full autonomous driving straight from launch day. The company’s upcoming compact SUV, set for unveiling later this week, is expected to arrive around the time that Tesla will roll out its next major advancements in self-driving technology.

The company has scheduled the Model Y launch for March 14 at 8 p.m. Pacific time at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, California. The event is set to feature a livestream, where viewers will get a glimpse of the car for the first time and learn more about its price. The entry-level car is set to help expand Tesla from a premium automaker to reach a broader market, the same goal as the Model 3 that arrived in July 2017 and the Pickup Truck set for an unveiling later this year.

tesla model y
Teaser image of the Model Y.

The Model Y is expected to arrive around the time that Tesla’s autonomous driving project may start offering more ambitious features. CEO Elon Musk said in an interview last month that the company will offer “feature complete” autonomous driving sometime this year, before moving to fall-asleep-at-the-wheel levels by the end of next year.

“My guess as to when we would think it is safe for somebody to essentially fall asleep and wake up at their destination? Probably towards the end of next year,” Musk said. “That is when I think it would be safe enough for that.”

It’s unclear when the Model Y will launch, but it’s likely to coincide with this feature. Musk told investors at the June 2018 shareholder meeting that the company aims to unveil the vehicle in March, before starting production in the first half of 2020. In Tesla’s January earnings call, Musk further clarified that initial production may start earlier in the year, but volume production won’t arrive until the end of the year — drawing to mind the “S-Curve” that Tesla struggled to conquer until 12 months after the Model 3’s launch, not the five months as predicted:

Model 3 production as shown at the Model 3 handover.
Model 3 production as shown at the Model 3 handover.

Tesla first outlined its full autonomy plans in October 2016, when it launched the “Hardware 2” platform. This is a suite of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and GPS capable of one day supporting full autonomous driving with no user intervention. Cars would start shipping with an Nvidia Drive PX 2 computer to power the current semi-autonomous Autopilot mode while enabling a future upgrade to support full autonomy. The description on Tesla’s website read:

All you will need to do is get in and tell your car where to go. If you don’t say anything, the car will look at your calendar and take you there as the assumed destination or just home if nothing is on the calendar.

Musk initially promised a coast-to-coast autonomous drive in 2017, but this was later shelved as Musk believed the resultant software would be too “brittle” and it would make more sense to focus efforts on completing a more widely-usable solution.

In August 2018, Tesla revealed an in-house artificial intelligence chip had been under development for the past three years, headed by former Apple engineer Pete Bannon. The new chip is capable of processing 2,000 frames per second with full redundancy and fail-over, up from the 20 frames per second achieved by the PX 2. The chip forms part of a “Hardware 3” suite and is designed to drop into place in the Model S, X and 3.

While the Model 3’s interior was built for full autonomy according to Musk, the Model Y could be the first vehicle to launch with the “Hardware 3” suite ready in place from day one. It could mark the start of a new era, one where the company’s vehicles are designed to focus on autonomy rather than the full driving experience. It’s unclear where Tesla will focus its efforts after its current cars have been released — Musk has suggested a $25,000 car could launch in three to four years — but the Model Y could be the first of Tesla’s many autonomy-ready cars.