Tesla's autopilot functionality keeps equipped cars safely in their lane.

Tesla AutoPilot Review – Becoming a Car Supervisor

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to borrow a Tesla Model S 60D for a long weekend (read my review here) and along with a few other add-ons, the car came with AutoPilot enabling me to have my first go at the much-talked-about system.

In my time with the car I spent about 450 miles on the motorway giving me ample time to test the system and for it to have a good chance to show me what it has got.

Autopilot is Tesla’s semi-autonomous driver assistance system.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: Is AutoPilot the same as Self-Driving? Put simply, no. And I don’t believe anyone who has used the system for more than 10 minutes would ever be led to think that the car can operate without user attention being required.

What the system does do however, is shift the driver’s role in the car: Instead of being a ‘car operator’ I became a ‘car supervisor’. It became my job to oversee what the car was doing and to intervene if I believed it was making the wrong decision or was getting itself into a situation it couldn’t handle.

Autopilot takes over steering duty -- but you still have to hold the wheel in the U.K.

Autopilot takes over steering duty — but you still have to hold the wheel in the U.K.

Though I do admit, when it was working well for long stretches, it did get tempting to take my hands off the steering wheel – something I never followed through with as there was a larger part of my brain telling me how stupid that would be. It would be the equivalent of crossing my legs while letting the car run on cruise control; sure, I could uncross them and press the pedals if needed but there would be an unnecessary delay in doing so.

AutoPilot was happy to work for extended periods on my drive. Indeed, on the initial day of driving where I covered roughly 200 miles of motorway travel the autopilot operated for about 160 miles of that.

For the most part, it was happy to do what it does and I didn’t need to take control. In fact, in the entire trip at no point did the car tell me to take control. The only times I did take back control was when I thought something was happened that I wanted to manage myself – like a micro-managing supervisor – or if it did something wrong, which it did on occasion.

There are moments when you want to take control — even if it’s not necessary at that point.

Micro-managing situations included some idiot needlessly undertaking me, cutting across my line in front of me and moving into the far lane. I took control with a simple tap of the brakes – disabling both the cruise control and auto-steer – tutted to myself in a very British way and then reengaged the AutoPilot once the idiot was on his way swerving back and forth across the lanes with not a care in The Highway Code.

For the most part the system operated just as it should. In fact, using it was a revelation. I would liken it to the times when I first time I drove a car with automatic transmission and first drove an electric car. Something just clicked in my head and went ‘this is more like how driving should be’. It very quickly became a fundamental of the driving experience.

For the most part… I was very careful to put those qualifiers theres. A few times when passing another car the AutoPilot positioned the car much closer to the other car than I would have liked.

There was also the time that when changing lanes rather than just stopping after one lane the car decided to try and take me off the motorway and into a road-side service station.

Annoying yes, but the above were few and far between. What was more annoying was the overtaking manoeuvre if I was ‘locked’ behind the car in front of me rather than driving up to it. Flipping the indicator to change lanes would cause the car to move and accelerate as it did as it was now no longer limited by the car in front. However, more often than not, this acceleration would suddenly be halted as, I presume, one of the front sensors saw the car in front coming to close.

Autopilot: great, but not perfect.

Autopilot: great, but not perfect.

The car would essentially accelerate, brake and then accelerate again. I am sure this can be adjusted easily at some point but it seems like quite a common manoeuvre that I am surprised it is still an issue.

None of these were deal-breakers though and in most of the situations they were rectified by me just refusing to let the car turn the wheel itself, or by a quick tap on the brakes or AutoPilot stalk enabled me to regain control and correct the situation before resuming my role as car supervisor.

I admit that maybe ‘car supervisor’ isn’t a wholly accurate description of the relationship because the suite of sensors that enable AutoPilot to work are also constantly looking out for my safety as was seen when the car applied the brakes for me at one point.

The car was driving along in AutoPilot in the fast lane as we were overtaking when suddenly the car in front rapidly slowed down due to the traffic having come to a standstill and, I presume, that driver not paying enough attention to the road ahead to brake slowly. They obviously didn’t have AutoPilot looking out for them.

Far quicker than I could react the car had changed the dashboard icon for the braking car to red, beeped at me and applied the brakes sharply. I was then able to take over braking and bring our car to a stop with plenty of clearance space. The removal of my reaction time in this situation essentially giving the car extra time to brake.

For long-distance trips, Autopilot is a blessing.

For long-distance trips, Autopilot is a blessing.

My second day of driving the car, another 200 mile journey, the British weather had taken a change and now it was raining and there was a lot of spray on the road. For most of this trip the car wouldn’t entertain the idea of activating AutoPilot falling back to just adaptive cruise control. On the few occasions where the rain stopped at the lane markings were particularly strong, upon trying AutoPilot I could tell the car wasn’t too happy. I always ended up disengaging it as I preferred keeping full control of the car myself.

This didn’t bother me at all.

I could go on to tell you about how I thought that when changing lanes the car takes too steep of an angle – possibly a hangover from the US where I believe the lanes are wider? Or how sometimes I think it errs on the side of caution when moving into a lane if a car had just passed by. But honestly, that would be nitpicking a system that isn’t meant to be a fully antonymous experience.

What I would rather do is talk about how liberating AutoPilot is to the driver. With it on I was able to look around more, taking in some of the breathtaking scenery in the North of England. I was able to adjust the satnav easily without worry that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the road. I was able to preempt more possible situations on the road.

At its core AutoPilot allowed me to become a safer driver by removing some of the cognitive load usually placed on me as the driver.

Autopilot allowed me to become a safer driver.

Autopilot allowed me to become a safer driver.

Is this a stepping stone to fully autonomous cars? Hell yes. It is very easy to see that with more sensors the system would be even better. And, with just a little bit more time, how the car could become fully self-driving.

What does it make me think about the ‘AutoPilot’ crashes that have happened? To be honest, even more confused. As I said at the beginning of this review, I do not see how anyone who has used this system for more than 10 minutes can believe it is a self-driving system. It is great but it is no where near that level… yet.

Should Tesla disable this system like some have called for? Not a chance. This system made me a safer driver and I am sure that is how a lot of people feel. To remove that would be to intentionally make their cars, in my opinion, less safe. In fact, I feel the opposite is more appropriate. If other manufacturers have similar technology and are currently holding it back, then need to be told to bring it to market.

I think it is worth noting that I believe that Tesla has a public relations problem around AutoPilot. When I told people that I would be testing it out, I had many people tell me not to use it around trucks or to flat out not trust it. Note: I don’t think the truck accident could happen in the UK due to an EU directive that states trucks can’t just have an open space between their front and back wheels.

With updates to the system being worked on: Both software and hardware-based ones, AutoPilot is only going to get better. Each new iteration is a step towards full automation and each step makes the car a little safer. I personally can’t wait to see this technology make its way into more affordable cars and I also can’t wait to try it again. I would even go as far as to say it may one day become a must for long distance trips.

“Who would even consider driving 200 miles themselves?”

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  • Martin Lacey

    Now if only Consumer reports could do a report like this, rather than running a headline grabbing pile of BS. Well done Mark and Transport Evolved for being sound journalists 🙂

  • KIMS

    ” I do not see how anyone who has used this system for more than 10 minutes…”
    I think the problem arise sometime between the first 10 minutes and the first 10 weeks.. In other words, familiarity breeds complacency.
    I think that large part of your brain would be very susceptible to relax if you owned this car and drove it in Autopilot mode on the same stretch of road every day for weeks on end. In the same way your mind can/will start to drift on your daily commute to the point where many people will have trouble recalling large portions of the drive home because the task is so familiar to them that it becomes nearly a subconscious background task.

    I’m not arguing that this is a good thing, at all, but I think most of the associated accidents happen after the driver becomes so used to the experience. The challenge going forward, in my opinion, will be that period of time where the technology is very close, but not quite there yet.. It will more and more lull people into complacency and cause issues, until the technology catches up and close the gap to where it becomes ok to be that complacent. That gray area in between is likely to lure/tempt people into a false sense of complacency.

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