Automotive

Hands-off with Tesla's Autopilot system

Autopilot is perfectly competent in most conditions, although drivers still need to be alert behind the wheel
Autopilot is perfectly competent in most conditions, although drivers still need to be alert behind the wheel
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The Model S will now accelerate, brake, steer and change lanes for drivers
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The Model S will now accelerate, brake, steer and change lanes for drivers
Autopilot is perfectly competent in most conditions, although drivers still need to be alert behind the wheel
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Autopilot is perfectly competent in most conditions, although drivers still need to be alert behind the wheel
Every now and then the system gets confused by exit ramps and the lane markings that come with them, forcing the driver to take control again
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Every now and then the system gets confused by exit ramps and the lane markings that come with them, forcing the driver to take control again
When the car makes a mistake, the driver can take control again by grabbing the wheel or touching the pedals
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When the car makes a mistake, the driver can take control again by grabbing the wheel or touching the pedals
Tesla's system sends information about any mistakes back to HQ, where the info is sent to all the other Model S' on the road
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Tesla's system sends information about any mistakes back to HQ, where the info is sent to all the other Model S' on the road
The Model S' instrument panel has been given an update to reflect what the radar is seeing
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The Model S' instrument panel has been given an update to reflect what the radar is seeing
With an as-tested price of over AUD$250,000 (US$182,000), the Model S with Autopilot is not autonomous driving for the masses
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With an as-tested price of over AUD$250,000 (US$182,000), the Model S with Autopilot is not autonomous driving for the masses
Tesla's system is constantly improving and learning from experiences
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Tesla's system is constantly improving and learning from experiences
The Model S' driver display has been updated to include more information about what the radar is saying
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The Model S' driver display has been updated to include more information about what the radar is saying

In the world of autonomous driving, no manufacturer has pushed its road-legal technology further than Tesla. Under the right conditions, Autopilot will accelerate, brake and steer for the driver, provided you've got your hands on the wheel. New Atlas hit the road in a Model S P90D to test the system out.

Autopilot uses a vast army of sensors and cameras to guide the car. Up front, there's a radar unit and a camera to read the lines on the road. These work with 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors that project 16 ft (4.8 m) in every direction around the car, in order to build a clear picture of what's sitting beside and behind you at any speed.

With an as-tested price of over AUD$250,000 (US$182,000), the Model S with Autopilot is not autonomous driving for the masses
With an as-tested price of over AUD$250,000 (US$182,000), the Model S with Autopilot is not autonomous driving for the masses

The thought of all this technology working behind the scenes, with no way for the driver to know what's going on is slightly unnerving. Tesla has looked to provide some peace of mind through the instrument cluster, with the Model S' display having been updated to include an image of the car that gives an indication of what the car is seeing.

Cars in your lane show up as little Model S' on your screen, and there are small colorful lines that pop up around the edge of the car as obstacles start to creep into your car's personal space. It's reassuring to know that the Tesla sees that kerb that caught your eye, although watching the lines go from green, to orange and wondering whether the car will react serves as a good test of your nerve.

What does all of that mean? Well, here at Gizmag we went the extra mile to find out: we turned off our inner control freak, turned on Autopilot and let the car do the work for us.

The Model S' driver display has been updated to include more information about what the radar is saying
The Model S' driver display has been updated to include more information about what the radar is saying

As you'd expect, it's completely unnatural when the car takes control. The driver's display is quick to remind you to keep your hands on the wheel, but it's more of a legal requirement than anything else, because in most situations the Model S handles itself perfectly competently.

In fact, the system does such a good job it's almost boring. Sitting on the busy freeways around Melbourne, the gap between us and the car in front never changes. As the road sweeps left and right, the car's wheel gently turns with it – it's not perfectly smooth, and the car tends to wander around in the lane a little bit, almost as if it's searching for reference points to base its path on.

Every now and then the Model S is caught off guard by lane markings that don't quite fit the normal pattern. As solid white lines around the edge of the freeway fade to open up for exits, Tesla's system gets indecisive, halfway between exiting and keeping up with the flow of traffic.

It's no surprise, then, Tesla recommends drivers use the system in the middle lanes of the highway. It's also not surprising to know the driver needs to be ready to take control of the wheel at all times, just in case things go wrong.

Tesla's system sends information about any mistakes back to HQ, where the info is sent to all the other Model S' on the road
Tesla's system sends information about any mistakes back to HQ, where the info is sent to all the other Model S' on the road

The other big piece of technology in Tesla's Autopilot arsenal is the automatic lane change function, which means you don't have to take manual control to duck around slow traffic on the freeway. If the automatic steering and radar cruise is mundane, trying to change lanes using the system will certainly inject some excitement into your day.

Even in ideal conditions, cruising along in the middle lane of a well-marked highway with no other cars around, we couldn't get it to work consistently. If the virtual driver controlling the steering wheel and speed is like a slightly nervous middle-aged driver, they become more like a 15-year-old taking their first drive on the highway when changing lanes.

It will edge out to the white line and pull back, before darting sharply across to the next lane. Of all the scary moments caused by Autopilot, lane changes had our heart in our mouths the most.

Thankfully, it's easy to take control if the system makes a mistake or doesn't act as expected. If you touch the brakes or pull the wheel, the system cuts out straight away and logs what the driver did to correct the error.

The Model S' instrument panel has been given an update to reflect what the radar is seeing
The Model S' instrument panel has been given an update to reflect what the radar is seeing

Every time you need to manually take control details about what the driver did and where they did it are sent back to Tesla, where they're sent out to the rest of the Autopilot equipped cars on the road. Essentially, it means Tesla's cars shouldn't make the same mistake twice.

So, what does all of this mean in the grand scheme of things? After all, Google's cars are averaging between 10,000 and 15,000 miles (16,000 and 24,000 km) per week of autonomous driving and Tesla says its cars have data on every inch of road in California. With that much information gathering going on, it's incredible to think of what Autopilot will be able to do in 12, or even six months time.

For now though, it's more of an extension to the radar cruise control system. The future of autonomous cars is coming at a rapid rate – that we know – but Autopilot is just a stop on that journey at the moment rather than the final destination.

Check out video of the Autopilot road test below.

Product page: Tesla Motors

Tesla P90D Autopilot Road Test

15 comments
Daishi
People are saying fully autonomous vehicles are already here and will hit the consumer market in 2-3 years but I'm still on the short list of skeptics. There are just too many common scenarios I can think of where it would be hard for the technology to make decisions completely absent of human intervention. Sometimes simple things like identifying lane markers when the road is when and the sun is reflecting off it is a challenge. Solving the last 10-20% of driving and situations will probably be harder than the first 80-90% of driving and cars will still needs humans closely paying attention until they are 100% autonomous. I think full 100% autonomy would take a ton of sensors, computing power, and complex reliable software. Many of these systems will be created by humans still capable of mistakes so the human element of driving isn't entirely eliminated, it's moved. I think probably a majority disagree with me on that but I'll just have to eat crow on it in a few years if I'm wrong :)
Bob Flint
So you the driver become the test bed, the car learns from it's "MISTAKES" Wrong the car is only 20 to 30% fully autonomous and you and everyone else will continue making mistakes and being there to help correct it? Are you serious might as well be responsible for my actions, not the incomplete capabilities of a machine, due to the manufacturer's flawed design. So when the road way gets changed, or obstructed by reflections from wet pavement, snow, ice, it screams out take control, while you are sleeping away behind the wheel. (remember the soda can bypass). Please stick with the plan of an affordable long distance vehicle, with a projected 20 year life span. Gotten 16 years outta my Honda, still going strong, even with salted roads.
DavidStonier-Gibson
So awesome to see this car driving on the Bolte and Westgate bridges close to home. At 70 I can have hope that the technology will be available and affordable before I have to hang up my driving gloves. What makes Tesla's approach so powerful is that it sends all the data from its mistakes back to base for integration into the global control logic.
Stephen N Russell
Love to drive this Tesla with autopilot, alas none for Rent
MikeW
The Tesla Model S is by far the best car I have ever driven and driven is the operative word. I love to drive not sit back and let software control the car. Concentrate on better battery technology as you already have the car RIGHT! Just longer range and quicker charging will make it perfect for MANY [not all] drivers as there is no one size fits all vehicle.
AMCarter3
So, what I haven't heard in any review about these autonomous driving car experiments is any evidence that a driver who habitually does "TEXTING" while driving will be any less of a danger to themselves and others in this car vs. a normal car. The fact that these autonomous cars still rely on a potentially distracted, incompetent, irrational or physically/mentally impaired driver as backup to the auto drive system is still the ultimate fly in this ointment. Add me to the serious skeptic list.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
This will take a LONG time! I don't even have air bags yet!
habakak
These are the early days. Although the curve is sharp. And the full benefits of autonomous vehicles will only be realized once virtually all vehicles on the road are autonomous. That's at least a quarter century away. But you and I will be able to enjoy most it's benefits on our daily commute within the next 5 years. Hooray!
Gizzyfuel
IF you guys remember the Solar roadway that one guy has develop What if new pavement included these solar low power sensory circuit that transmit Point of reference on the road such as left lane mile 223 224 225 and so on with this sensory of other car. So that thus can say it can use the Point of reference to build a travel scene and It can follow a pathway. And If there a traffic accident on a certain road the emerency people can then transmit a data to the three point of reference for auto-pilot to know hey need to make a detour to a nearby exit. And we can say sure or no tesla. This can pretty much solve the never have to worry about paint weathering away.
guzmanchinky
In the US 100 people a day die violent, preventable deaths. Every day. Self driving cars cannot arrive soon enough.