Tesla Autopilot 101

Typical questions I hear about Autopilot are: 1) Can you read a book while your driving? 2) Does it drive itself from your home to your work?

The short answer to both questions is no!

So what does Autopilot do today, and when can we expect cars to completely drive themselves?

Core Autopilot features today:

  1. Maintain your speed – no different than cruise control, if you start Autopilot when your driving 65MPH, it will maintain this speed without your needing to use the accelerator pedal

  2. Adjust your speed relative to traffic (traffic aware cruise control) – once you have set a target speed, Autopilot senses the speed of the car in front of you, and will automatically reduce/increase your speed relative to the car in front of you – for instance, if a car merges into your lane moving slower than you, your car slows down, as they accelerate, your car accelerates (to the target speed) – Autopilot can take you to a complete stop then back to your target speed

  3. Maintain your lane (autosteer) – Autopilot keeps you in your lane, adjusting the steering wheel as the road turns – you need to keep your hand on the steering wheel, but Autopilot is doing the active adjustment of the steering

Below is a quick view of the above features in a relatively complex environment (all above features are enabled in this video) – the road is curving significantly, and there is an oncoming car that is turning left – you will see my car take the curves, and it may be hard to detect, but you should notice my car is slowing down as it approaches the car crossing the lane, then speeds up again after the car has cleared the lane. The following is the location of the video (I’m driving Northwest on Canal Road, approaching Reservoir Road): https://goo.gl/maps/Wfa1MZyHEW12

The above video is from the built in dashcam that comes with the Tesla – just add a $10 USB memory stick, and the car records the front and two side (looking backwards) cameras!

Why are the above features so great – I’ll tell you where I LOVE using them:

  • On long drives – I commute ~75 miles each day – and driving on Autopilot completely changes the intensity of driving – I can more easily make/take calls, I can use the time to think through different items planned for the day, and overall I get to work far fresher

  • In heavy stop and go traffic – Autopilot will bring you to a complete stop, raise then lower your speed as needed – keeping you in your lane. The intensity of stop and go traffic is replaced with a far more peaceful experience as the car is always ensuring the speed is raised/lowered, to maintain pace with traffic

  • Trips – I now can’t imagine taking a trip without Autopilot, its just really relaxing to be able to drive where the speed and lane maintenance is handled by the car

Is Autopilot safe?

  • My son prefers Autopilot to my driving …

  • I definitely feel that I am FAR safer when using Autopilot … but there are items you need to continue to be responsible for:

    • Limited/cautious use in bad weather

    • Limited/cautious use in construction zones

    • Potholes/road debris

    • Awareness of cars around you in heavy traffic that might do something really stupid/aggressive (basically, your still primarily responsible for defensive driving tactics)

  • I have seen multiple rear end collisions when I drive, and before having my Tesla I had a person rear end me (my guess is that with people looking at phones, rear end accidents have been rising …). I personally believe most, if not all of these rear end accidents would not occur if the person was using Autopilot

Is there more? Yes – there are two other key features that are currently available (they are currently available under the “Autopilot” feature set, but are being moved to the “Full Self Driving” feature set for new buyers)

  • Lane changes – When Autopilot is engaged, it will change your lane by using the turn signal – engage the turn signal “left”, Autopilot moves you one lane to the left … prior to changing lanes, there is verification that there is another lane and verification that there are no cars in your way (or at risk of being in your way because they are approaching quickly) – the car will revert to your original lane if while changing lanes it senses a nearing car that it did not sense when starting the lane change. This feature has come a long way since first released, as it now will adjust your speed to assist with lane changes in tighter traffic – slowing you down to position for an opening, or speed up as changing lanes, to keep pace with the new lane’s traffic

  • Navigate on Autopilot (NAP)Integrates (for the first time) Autopilot features with Navigation features. This functionality currently works on highways, and has a number of capabilities:

    • Correct lane for upcoming exit – NAP based on navigation will recommend changing lanes for an upcoming exit – for instance if your in the middle lane, it will suggest changing to the right lane for a right exit – NAP requires the driver to use the turn signal to indicate “agreement” with its recommendation, and will then change your lane following use of the turn signal

    • Best lane for maintaining your speed – NAP will recommend changing lanes if your lane is moving slowly, and other lanes are moving more quickly – you need to use the turn signal to indicate “agreement” with its recommendations, and following use of the turn signal, your lane will be changed

    • Automatic highway exit – NAP will automatically turn on your turn signal and move you into the exit ramp to follow navigation – this is done completely automatically by NAP

Is Lane Changing and Navigate on Autopilot safe?

While I heavily use these features, I treat them as truly “Beta”, and think of myself as a tester of the functionality. While I am continually amazed at what it can do and how I can visibly see week by week enhancements Tesla is making to these capabilities, there are real limitations – and for some people it will be best to love all of the other features of the Tesla, and not use these – know yourself, and your willingness to be a tester. Let me be a little more specific here – I have never been concerned for my safety while using these features, but I am always ready to take control regardless of my confidence that the car will do the right thing in a given situation.

Where I am highly aware and cautious when using these features:

  • When I engage my turn signal to allow the car to change lanes, I am as aware and engaged in the process as I would be if I did it myself – I check my blindspot, and I cognitively confirm that if I were making the lane change it would be a safe one – I act like an over protective parent – is it needed? I don’t know, but its what I feel comfortable with – I do believe the car can do more than I let it do, but this “relationship” will grow in trust over time – each person needs to find their right trust level.

  • Heavy traffic is very complicated – you often need to perform tight maneuvers when changing lanes, and may have limited time to do this – in these cases I typically turn off NAP and perform these myself

  • From my experience, NAP is still working through speed targets while on exit ramps – on the highway you may set your speed to 65 or 70MPH, but what should your speed be on the exit ramp? Even posted speeds are not always appropriate, sometimes they are far too slow (and dangerous to take slow relative to surrounding traffic), sometimes they may be quicker than your comfortable with. Sometimes its unclear … Since I started using NAP, exit ramps have improved significantly, but I am still always ready to slow down or speed up based on the situation

  • Google maps (which is what NAP relies upon) has amazing lane detail – which is the reason Tesla uses Google maps (and not Waze), but its not perfect – so even though NAP may make a recommendation to change lanes, I always want to be sure I agree with the decision

There are other features listed under Autopilot/Full Self Driving like “Summon” and “Auto Park” – I won’t be covering these in this blog.

Where is self driving technology going – or more specifically when can we expect to be able to watch a movie while driving?

  • The short answer in my opinion, is this is a “journey not a destination” – the capabilities noted above will continue to get better – so things like highway lane changes and exit ramps will continue to get better – to the point that that true self driving on highways for all practical purposes is not that far away – with the caveat, that it would be for most situations …

  • In terms of city driving, specific new capabilities to detect traffic lights and stop signs will be added to enable Navigate on Autopilot on city streets (Tesla says later this year, but I would not be surprised if it pushes into next year) … but city streets are VERY complicated – so this initially will need users to be fully prepared to step in – and this area (in my opinion) will take longer to perfect (because of its complexity)

  • These systems need to be “trained” – this means capturing the thousands (or millions) of exceptions and processing correct results for each of these. This will take years

  • Rough conditions like heavy rain or snowstorms will continue to present challenges – so expect self driving to be available in clear weather first

Your 12 year old likely won’t be able to drive themselves to soccer practice for at least a number of years (by that time they can get their drivers license!) … but, the simplicity of driving, and the safety of driving should improve as the sophistication and “training” of these systems grows. We will only get to the situation where your 12 year old can take the car on their own if we “train” the systems. By using these capabilities as they are made available, we are investing in enabling (through “training”) the ability to perform self driving in the future, and receiving an improved driving experience in the near term.