Tesla Model S Autopilot
Autopilot can take control of the steering, accelerator and brakes of all new Tesla Model S and Model X cars.Reuters

Drivers are 50% less likely to have a serious accident when they switch on Tesla's autonomous Autopilot feature, compared to those who drive the car themselves.

This is the bold claim laid down by Tesla chief executive, Elon Musk, who says this statistic is true of the company's first version of Autopilot, although Tesla describes the feature as in a beta test stage and nowhere near finished. If true, the claim will go some way towards helping Tesla prove to authorities and consumers that the technology is safe, thus paving the way for more advanced systems which could take control away from the driver entirely.

During a recent trip to Norway, Musk spoke with Ketil Solvik-Olsen, the country's minister of transport and communications. First published by Electrek, Musk said: "The probability of having an accident is 50% lower if you have Autopilot on. Even with our first version.

"So we can see basically what's the average number of kilometers to an accident - accident defined by airbag deployment. Even with this early version, it's almost twice as good as a person."

In its current form, Autopilot can take control of the car's accelerator, brakes and steering when driving on a road that has clear lane markings, such as a motorway. By reading the markings and watching vehicles around it, the car can effectively drive itself for many miles at a time, always keeping to the speed limit (or to a limit imposed by the driver) and slowing down for traffic. Flicking the indicator stalk while lightly touching the wheel will tell the car to change lanes.

As well as regular motorway driving, Autopilot can also react to and avoid incidents. If a vehicle moves into your lane, Autopilot will swerve out of the way. The system learns as it drives and every Tesla vehicle with then function installed will feed what it learns back to the company's servers over a 3G internet connection, improving the collective minds of every Tesla on the road.

Musk continued: "I think it's going to be important in terms of satisfying regulators and the public to show statistically with a large amount of data - with billions of kilometers of driving - to say that the safety level is definitely better, by a meaningful margin, if it's autonomous versus non-autonomous."

Several other manufacturers are working on autonomous driving features. They mostly use the same technology and sensors as Tesla, but are not yet working their systems as hard. The new BMW 7-Series, for example, can drive itself on motorways too, while cheaper cars like the Ford Focus and Mini Clubman can park themselves.