I recently got a good portion of time testing Tesla’s Autopilot system in a Tesla Model S. Below are my thoughts on the system and how well it works in the UK.
The main focus of my testing was done on a 1,200 mile round trip from Birmingham to the Scottish Highlands and back. This most likely included around 800 miles of motorway driving with autopilot enabled about around 80% of that.
What is Tesla’s Autopilot System?
I think it is worth clearing up the term ‘autopilot’ from the off. The term autopilot implies a bit more than the system actually executes at the moment. The system is designed to be used on the motorway and still requires the driver to be fully aware, with both hands on the wheel. The system is one I would class as an assistive piece of technology that is able to help maintain and adapt the speed to the environment, whilst also maintaining lane position on the motorway. The best way to think about the technology is as a super advanced cruise control system.
How Do You Enable Autopilot?
Once on the motorway and up to speed you will notice either side of the speed read out on the dashboard there is an adaptive cruise control symbol and an Autopilot symbol that will show when the systems are available to be enabled. If the car believes autopilot is suitable to be enabled it will show the symbol in white. To enable the system you double pull on the adaptive cruise control lever and it will maintain your current motorway speed and hold the car centrally in the lane.
Autopilot Test Time-lapse Video
How Does it Feel Once Enabled?
For the sake of this article I would like to think most people have experienced cruise control before. The idea is that you don’t need to use the accelerator pedal to maintain a speed. Adaptive cruise control takes it a little further meaning that you set a maximum speed as, for example, 70 miles an hour and also set a distance you’d like to keep from the car in front of you. If that gap is reduced the Model S will reduce its speed to maintain a safe gap between the two cars. Then the Autopilot system brings in the lane-holding auto steer functionality. Once enabled, the natural reaction is to lighten your hand inputs and just feel how the car controls itself down the lane. Honestly, it only took me a couple of hours to properly adjust to trust the car and to witness how it reacts in many different environments.
What Are the Benefits of Autopilot?
Considering you still have to be alert, and keep both hands on the wheel, some people might say, “what’s the point?” But when you take a solid amount of time to test out the system you can see the benefits. Although they are minor, they still make great improvements to long-distance journeys. The most obvious advantage is that the Autopilot system in the Model S allows you to end your longer motorway journeys with less fatigue. The auto steering technology allows you to relax the muscles in your arms allowing the motors to do the hard work for you and you just need to be ready in case there are any issues.
Other benefits are that you appear to be saving mental energy by not making thousands of minor adjustments by continuously adjusting the steering wheel. I am no scientist, this is only my own experience, but I did feel more confident to drive long distances and felt more alert whilst using the system.
Other benefits are that I think the car, in 90% of my use, was able to maintain a smoother, more central lane position than myself as a human. This is a very minor point but it added additional smoothness to the flow on the motorway and help reduce the tiring effects of motion on the body.
Lastly another benefit is that humans make mistakes, and it was a good feeling to know that in the event of me not noticing a car entering my lane or severely breaking in front of me then the Model S had my back, giving me a greater chance of avoiding an accident.
Without a doubt this is the most advanced technology that I have had the pleasure to test on production cars. The Autopilot system works incredibly well even at its initial stages in its life-cycle. The system certainly improves the driver experience of the car and heightens the safety of the passengers in ways we have never seen before. Spending quality time testing out the features I can see that the next few iterations of this technology are going to bring huge benefits to the roads.
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