Tesla announced October 20 that every new vehicle produced at its Fremont, California factory will be equipped with hardware capable of fully autonomous driving—though the software required to fully utilize this hardware is still under development and not expected to be available to Tesla owners until 2018.

The new autonomous hardware suite combines camera, sonar, and radar technology to “paint a picture” of the vehicle’s surroundings for the on-board supercomputer, which will interpolate the data before making pre-programmed decisions based on the information obtained.

A 360-degree view of the vehicle’s surroundings will be captured by eight external cameras which, in ideal conditions, will be able to “see” up to 250 meters in range. Twelve ultrasonic sensors will allow for detection of both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the previous system, thanks to updated technology.

Finally, a forward-facing radar will operate on a redundant wavelength (so as not to frustrate traffic police); Tesla says this radar system will be capable of seeing through heavy rain, thick fog, dust, and even the vehicle ahead.

The new onboard computer – Nvidia’s GPU Titan supercomputer – is 40 times more powerful than the computer currently installed on Tesla vehicles. This unit is said to be able to handle “level 5” autonomy—the highest level of driverless autonomy, requiring zero human-driver input.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, said new vehicles equipped with the fully autonomous hardware suite will initially have limited self-driving ability and will be incapable of performing some Tesla Autopilot capabilities available on previously produced Teslas.

After a few months of software improvements, however, the new hardware-equipped Teslas are expected to match previous Autopilot capabilities, and will then go on to exceed them by early next year.

As usual, all software advancements will be automatically downloaded to Tesla vehicles by over-the-air updates.

When it’s finally available for use, Tesla’s fully autonomous vehicle technology won’t come cheap: Tesla has listed it as an $8,000 USD option. A cheaper “Enhanced Autopilot” semi-autonomous option will ring in at $5,000 USD. No word yet on Canadian pricing.

Despite the death of a driver using Tesla’s current Autopilot technology and multiple Autopilot-related crashes, Tesla insists that its fully autonomous software will achieve levels of safety beyond the capability of any human driver.

(Tesla)