Tesla announced Wednesday that all cars produced today and going forward will be equipped with the necessary hardware to support fully autonomous driving — including the upcoming Model 3.
The required hardware includes eight cameras that add up to 360-degree visibility, 12 updated ultrasonic sensors with added sensitivity, and a forward-facing radar the company says will see through heavy rain, fog, dust "and even the car ahead."
With the upgrade, Tesla moves further down the road to making its electric vehicles capable of driving without human direction, when the software and regulations allow for it.
It's unclear when that will be. Several automakers predict three to five years. But Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk aims to send a vehicle traveling in fully autonomous mode from Los Angeles to New York by the end of next year.
Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer called the Tesla news "a big up-front commitment to self-driving technology that other automakers may not be willing to make at this point."
During a news briefing Wednesday evening, Musk laid into the media for spotlighting accidents that occur with Tesla cars using its Autopilot driver assist systems, without putting the accidents in context of the large number of overall traffic deaths.
"You effectively dissuade people from using autonomous vehicles, and you're killing people," he said.
The new sensor and processor package, which Musk referred to as Hardware II, will be equipped with "a new onboard computer with more than 40 times the computing power of the previous generation," the company said.
Musk identified Nvidia as the maker of the new computer board, which will use the company's Titan processor. Nvidia is a video-game and graphics processing powerhouse that's making a big leap into the automotive market.
Nvidia is working on demonstration projects with most major automakers and this year formed a development partnership with BMW and Israeli vision software company Mobileye.
Musk, however, said vision processing for the Hardware 2 suite is being developed in-house.
Tesla and Mobileye were once partners but ended their relationship in July.
Current Tesla owners won't be able to upgrade to the new driverless hardware. "It's not realistic," Musk said. "It would be like giving the cars a spinal cord transplant."
The new package, he said, will add $8,000 to the cost of each car, although how that will affect consumer pricing is yet to be determined. The current hardware suite adds $3,000 in cost, he said.
Although the cars won't make full use of the new hardware for some time, Musk said it won't sit there useless. It will add capabilities to the company's existing Autopilot driver-assist technology, including lane keeping and collision avoidance. Driverless software will operate in "shadow" mode behind the scenes, to be used by Tesla's software developers to perfect autonomous technology.
The upgrade adds yet another project to Musk's ever-rising stack of ambitions.
He's already producing two cars at Tesla, models S and X, delivering 50,000 of them last year. By the end of 2017, if Musk's schedule is met, the first Model 3 mid-market sedan will pop off the assembly line. Musk has vowed to pump out 500,000 vehicles in 2018.
He's not only building a car company, he's intent on creating an alternative energy powerhouse. Tesla already makes car batteries and Powerwall-brand home storage batteries. The company is constructing a gigantic $5-billion structure it calls the Gigafactory outside Reno to turn out batteries in large numbers, and opened a piece of it this last summer.
The alternative-energy plan depends on completion of a $2.3-billion stock deal that would fold solar energy company SolarCity into Tesla. Musk is the largest shareholder at each company. The other shareholders are set to vote on the deal in November. The idea is to offer a self-sustaining energy system to households, where electricity from the solar roof powers the house and loads the home battery, to provide backup power and to recharge electric cars.
Musk's ambitions extend beyond planet Earth. He's got a private rocket-and-capsule company known as SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, that carries satellites and cargo into space, with future plans to carry humans to the International Space Station in a contract with NASA.
Also, Musk plans to colonize Mars.
Musk has proven his ability to attract billions of dollars from the stock and debt markets to keep his ambitions alive. He intends to raise new rounds next year.
At some point, though, cash from operations will have to exceed cash burned from new investment for his grand ambitions to succeed.
6:40 p.m.: This article has been updated to include additional details about Tesla's new equipment.