Tesla Motors has unveiled new software updates that could relieve "range anxiety" and give its electric vehicles the ability to drive themselves.
In an invitation-only telephone conference Thursday, the company's chief executive, Elon Musk, said new Tesla vehicles will soon be able to steer themselves, park themselves and brake in an emergency.
He also said current Tesla Model S sedans will now be able to tell you exactly how much juice is in the battery, and exactly what to do about it. The update, he said, will dramatically reduce the electric vehicle owners' condition known as range anxiety -- the fear that the car will run out of power before it reaches its destination.
Analysts were not impressed. Tesla's shares fell $4.71 to $197.80 on Musk's announcement.
“Musk is giving the buyers of his luxury car an app that says ‘don't drive too far from one of my chargers,’” said Kelley Blue Book’s managing editor, Matt DeLorenzo.
Musk said new updates, which will download wirelessly to Model S cars already on the road some time in the next 10 days or so, will scan the locations of all Tesla charging stations and tell drivers exactly how far it is to the best one, and then recommend the best route for getting there.
The new features "are going to make a key difference to people driving the car and their perception of it as they are driving the car," Musk said. "It makes it impossible to run out of range unintentionally. The car will always take care of you."
Musk also promised another set of software updates that will make it possible for the car to drive itself on highways and major roads -- "parking lot to parking lot," he said.
During test drives along a route from the Bay Area to the Northwest, he said, "We are able to travel almost all the way without the driver touching any controls at all."
Perfecting those features will require "a lot of validation testing," Musk cautioned. But these capabilities could be a reality "in three months or so."
The car will also be its own valet, Musk said, though not in public parking lots.
"On private property you will be able to press the 'summon' button and your car will be able to find you," he said. "You can press it again and the car will put itself to bed in the garage, and close the garage door."
Despite touting these improvements, Musk suggested that range anxiety was more imaginary than real.
It should be enough that the Teslas’ range and supercharger network already allow for a range of 280 miles of freeway driving at 60 mph, Musk said.
"There are rare occasions where someone wants to drive nonstop for 10 hours and wear diapers,” Musk said. “But that’s unusual.”
Though Musk's motor vehicles are by far the most expensive electric cars on the road -- the lowest-priced Model S goes for over $70,000, while many cost more than $110,000 -- they already offer the greatest range.
Currently, a top-end Model S sedan can get as much as 295 miles out of a single charge, the company has said. Even the entry-level Model S can go 265 miles before recharging.
No other electric vehicle offers even half that. While many EVs now on the road can go 80 to 100 miles between charges, only the Toyota RAV 4 EV cracks the century mark -- and only at an estimated 103 miles.
And, unlike other electric cars, the Tesla comes with a substantial charging infrastructure where most drivers can, for free, refresh their battery life in a short time.
Recharging the battery on a household 110-volt plug could take more than 24 hours. But a Tesla "supercharger," at stations the company has installed across North America, can replenish 80% of the battery's power in 30 to 40 minutes.
The 12-year-old company currently has only the Model S sedan available through its unique no-dealership sales arrangement.
The company said at the time of its fourth-quarter earnings reports in February that it produced 35,000 Model S vehicles in 2014.
Tesla's long-delayed midsized crossover SUV, the Model X, is expected to begin delivery late this year. The company has said it already has more than 20,000 orders for the highly anticipated falcon-wing X.
Musk said all the dramatic new features currently being applied to the Model S will be available on the Model X as well.