Ahhh, Autopilot. Depending on what you’ve been told it’s either an irresponsible, wrongly named, killer experiment or, it’s a fantastic, safer than a human, life-saving driving aid. This blog is about my experiences of commuting and road tripping with Autopilot – what it’s really good at and where it ain’t that great.
I reckon I’m in a good place to comment given I’ve driven well over 35,000 km on Autopilot and more than 95% of our recent ten day, 4500km Brisbane road trip and the following weekend’s 1650km Bowral road trip were on Autopilot. I have developed considerable confidence in Autopilot; I am more than happy to let the car take the lead role of driving, with me watching, as often as possible. And I have also learned the hard way not to become complacent.
Love driving too much to use Autopilot?
Yes, I love DRIVING too! Give me a winding road with some challenging bends, a racetrack or a hill climb circuit and I’m in heaven – cannot get enough. Driving fast and smooth and finding the Tesla’s limits is a great way to spend some time!
However, I hate sitting in bumper to bumper traffic getting more and more frustrated with the seemingly inattentive drivers around me, or traveling brain-dead along hundreds of kilometres of freeway fighting to pay attention. And that’s where Autopilot comes in *cue singing angels now*…
And you reckon you’ll fall asleep if you weren’t driving
A lot of people think that. The truth is, driving aids like radar cruise control are proven to not only be quicker to react than a human but reduce fatigue on long drives. The less you need to concentrate the less fatigued you become. The easiest way to demonstrate this is to take yourself out and on to a racetrack for a day. When you get home you’ll be so exhausted from the sustained concentration required.
When you add the ability to Autosteer, the need to concentrate on everything going on around you is further diminished – note, I am not saying you don’t need to concentrate; just, you only need to focus on road conditions ahead – not road conditions plus steering plus accelerating and braking. On our recent road trip to Queensland, due to work and prepping and packing for the ten days away, we only got 4 1/2 hours sleep the night before we left. We set off expecting to only travel a few hundred kilometres, yet comfortably travelled almost 1000km the first day and arrived on the NSW Central Coast feeling like we could do another few hundred easily.
Road tripping on Autopilot goes something like this… Pull out of Tesla Supercharger centre; drive out to freeway; engage autopilot, let the car drive, watch the road conditions and observe other vehicles etc; when arriving at next Supercharger a couple of hours later, take over driving and park at the charger, plug in and grab a coffee. Repeat. The break every two hours helps keep you refreshed and the Autopilot takes away the stress.
Oh, and if you still think you’d fall asleep, watch this video of what happens if you fall asleep behind the wheel on Autopilot. Spoiler alert… you won’t run off the highway at 100km/h.
A lesson in complacency…
After around 20,000km of incident free motoring on Autopilot I started to really trust its capabilities. The problem was I subconsciously extended its capabilities to include keeping watch on the road conditions. One day, somewhere in central Victoria we were traveling at around 100km/h along the Murray Valley Highway, and I was studying the mountain range off to my right, we crested an irrigation ditch and slammed into a pothole, buckling a wheel. My lovely wife V tried to console me by saying she was watching and that there was no way I could have avoided it regardless, and the many cars we heard slam into the same pothole after ignoring our emergency triangle supports her view. Autopilot can do a lot of the work for you, but it’s up to you to avoid the many potholes and dead fauna littering Australia’s roads.
My daily Autopilot commute – the good and the bad
I drive to work in the CBD from Warrandyte in Melbourne’s outer north east. I maximise my time on Autopilot and I’ll make several planned interventions during the trip that I’ll describe below. I also might emergency over-ride Autopilot occasionally too. My morning 35+km commute goes something like this:
Unplug the car, jump in, foot on the brake, select drive and head off (you actually don’t ‘start’ a Tesla and there’s no handbrake to release). Drive the 1.3km down our unmarked bush road to Yarra St, Warrandyte.
When I get on to Yarra St I pull the cruise-control lever back twice – this engages Autopilot – the car automatically sets it’s maximum speed to the limit of 50km/h and maintains its position in the lane and accelerates and slows down with the surrounding traffic. When the limit increases to 60km/h I hold the cruise lever back for a few seconds and the car resets to a max of 60.
Shortly after is a reasonably tight, and not great visibility left hand corner. I prepare to take over just in case an on-coming car cuts the corner. Just after this the road dips, gets wider and the markings disappear. If there is a car in front of me we travel through just fine, if there is no-one in front I take control – the Tesla doesn’t know what to do here and will set off an alarm for me to take over if I haven’t already. Back on Autopilot until the roundabout where I turn left – the Autopilot cannot negotiate an intersection yet unless going straight.
Here we enter a school zone and the car automatically slows to 40km/h. That’s great. The only problem is the Tesla can’t tell the time so it will slow to 40 everyday and at all times. Override the slow-down by pressing the accelerator; but, remember when you do that you also override emergency braking. Through the school zone and the car automatically speeds up. There’s three more intersections that I negotiate to get on Springvale Road using Autopilot between each one.
Springvale Road here is very hilly. Autopilot relies on its ability to see the lines marked on the road; however, it’s camera is fixed at a set angle. This means when you’re cresting a steep hill the camera starts looking at the sky and may not see the lines. The reverse happens when in a dip – the camera can’t see far enough to drive smoothly. At these times, if left to it’s own devices, the car can wander around like a drunken sailor. But you have learnt this and you are ready to take control. If however, you’re in a line of cars your Tesla will watch the car in front and take its lead from there.
We come up to a major intersection. If I have cars in front of me the Tesla automatically slows down and stops behind them ready to automatically accelerate when the lights change. If I’m at the front then I have to apply the brakes as it doesn’t recognise a red light and won’t automatically come to a stop. One owner has reported that their car emergency braked when they were about to go through a red light at speed, but this is unconfirmed and I for one am not willing to test that little theory!
When I get on to the Eastern Freeway I blast into the second from right lane and engage Autopilot, I change my seating to my more comfortable Hwy position. The car is again fully in control and negotiates the traffic, the stops and starts, and the bends until I get to Lygon St. No intervention is required. I just watch and rest a hand on the wheel.
After turning onto Lygon, I engage AP again; however, with pedestrians and poor parking I keep a very close watch and am ready to avoid things the car may not see. Before I know it I’ve arrived at work without any stress from the peak hour grind.
Remember, it’s not an autonomous car
Make no mistake, a Tesla can not drive itself around the block (yet). It’s really great in specific situations. And no, you can’t be under the influence! You must be ready and prepared to take over at any time and are fully responsible for what happens whether on Autopilot or not.
When using Autopilot, Tesla requests that you keep your hands on the wheel. If your car detects that you are not holding on, after a while depending on conditions, a warning flashes and then an alarm will sound. If you still do not grab the wheel you will get sent to the Autopilot Sin Bin and not be able to use Autopilot for the remainder of your trip.
So what really is this Autopilot thing then?
Contrary to popular belief, Autopilot is not a ‘thing’ unto its own. It is the name given to a number of driving aids working in unison. These driving aids include:
- Traffic Aware Cruise Control
This holds your car at a set speed and automatically slows to maintain a safe distance should there be a car in front. It can bring the car to a standstill and accelerate when clear. It will also provide steering intervention if your car and another vehicle in an adjacent lane drift too close together (whether or not Autosteer is engaged).
- Autosteer – (Beta)
It detects lane markings and the presence of vehicles and objects, steering to stay in your lane and avoid the vehicles directly in front of you and to your sides. Can take emergency evasive action if required.
- Auto Lane Change
To change lanes, simply indicate (and in Oz put some light initial pressure on the wheel) and the car will check that it is safe to change lanes and then perform the manoeuvre automatically. Change your mind? Turn off the indicator and your car will centre back in the original lane.
Similar to other auto parking functions however in a Tesla you do not operate the brake or accelerator – the car will fully self park and change gear to Park at completion. In some markets (e.g. US) you can get out of the car and then send it to park by itself.
All Tesla cars are now fitted with all the hardware required for Autonomous driving and are recording events in real time and feeding it back to the mothership Tesla. This fleet learning provides massive data back to Tesla leading to many incremental improvements overtime. When enough data is gathered and enough lessons are learned more functionality is released to the cars via Over The Air (OTA) updates edging towards a fully autonomous experience.
This article was written based on my experiences with the early version of Autopilot hardware.
Just let me know if there’s anything specific you want to know and I’ll add it to a future blog.
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