Autopilot Cars Tesla: Self-Driving Tesla
Published: October 15, 2015
Autopilot Cars Tesla: Self-Driving Tesla, Tesla is sending out its new over-the-air software update in the next few days, Version 7.0, which brings Autopilot self-driving capability to the Model S. Road & Track got the chance to preview the technology in perhaps the most challenging driving environment in the world: Downtown Manhattan.
The system uses equipment that’s been built-in to every Model S since September 2014—six long-range ultrasonic sensors each in the front and rear bumper, a windshield-mounted forward-facing camera, a front-bumper radar system, and the car’s built-in GPS system. But Version 7.0 connects this existing equipment to a new, optional system that, under the right conditions, will basically do almost everything for you.
Activating Autopilot is a lot like using a conventional car’s cruise control. Once the car is moving faster than 18 MPH, two icons will appear on the Tesla’s instrument panel: A speedometer sign, indicating that radar-based Traffic-Aware Cruise Control is ready, and a steering wheel that lets you know Autosteer is able to sense the lane lines in front of you. Once both icons appear, a double-pull on the cruise control stalk below the turn signal activates the system.
When the system is engaged, the Tesla takes over entirely. Like a conventional adaptive cruise control, the driver sets the desired top speed, and a front-bumper-mounted radar maintains a minimum cruising distance behind the vehicle ahead. Autosteer, as the name suggest, handles the turns.
The driver’s display with Autopilot engaged. Icons show that both radar cruise control and Autosteer are active; the blue lane lines indicate that the car can sense the lane markings; the speed limit and vehicle directly ahead are also shown. Green dot indicates the right turn signal is active, and the car is about to change lanes autonomously. The driver chose to keep his hands on the wheel.
In our very brief jaunt down Manhattan’s traffic-choked West Side Highway, the system was almost entirely unflappable. Like many radar-based active cruise control systems, Autopilot reacts a little less smoothly than an attentive human chauffeur when traffic comes to an unexpected halt, and its insistence on maintaining a constant gap with traffic ahead can lead to some slightly jerky moments when a fellow motorist cuts into your lane. It’s nothing major, but it does take a few minutes to put your full trust in the system.
The real difference here is Autosteer. Unlike seemingly every other automaker offering semi-autonomous driving today, Tesla’s system does not deactivate if the driver takes his or her hands off the wheel. The system will flash a warning prompting the driver to take over if there’s a situation that Autopilot can’t handle. If that doesn’t happen—say, on a long, well-marked, sparsely-populated interstate—a driver could theoretically cruise for hours down the highway without ever being prompted to grab the wheel.
So long as the system can clearly see the lane lines, it will also change lanes for you. With Autopilot activated, all the driver has to do is turn on the turn signal, and assuming there’s a clear path, the car will execute the lane change. This feature wasn’t always available in our brief test-drive—where lane lines weren’t visible, or where traffic was blocking the car’s view of the lane markings, Autopilot simply wouldn’t respond to the turn signal. But when the car was satisfied with the conditions, it executed lane changes without drama.??
Of course, Tesla isn’t painting the picture this way. “It’s almost to the point where you can take your hands off [. . .] but we’re very clearly saying this is not a case of abdicating responsibility,” Elon Musk said during a press conference announcing the new feature. “The hardware and software are not yet at the point where a driver can abdicate responsibility.” In the press release, Tesla says the system “requires drivers to remain engaged and aware when Autosteer is enabled. Drivers must keep their hands on the steering wheel.” In practice, at least in the car I drove, the system had no qualms with me letting go of the wheel for several minutes at a time, even as traffic stopped and started several times.
Caveats: As of right now, Autopilot can’t react to traffic lights or stop signs. During our New York test, my car dutifully followed the lead of cars ahead, but when I was the first car in line at a changing traffic light I had to brake for myself, then accelerate to activation speed before re-engaging Autopilot. And once or twice during our jaunt, the Tesla Model S P85D test vehicle loomed ever-so-slightly too close to big commercial vehicles in the next lane. This may have been my own squeamishness at the thought of dinging the Model S’s low hood on the cargo lift of a carelessly-driven box truck, or, frankly, I may have been misjudging the car’s position in the lane. Either way, a quick touch of the brake pedal brought the car immediately under my control, the same as you’d do when your old-school cruise control got you a little too close to traffic ahead. And while Autopilot can handle curves and lane changes by itself, at the moment it cannot autonomously navigate a turn at an intersection. That’s still on you, pal.
In our short drive, we weren’t able to test every situation an Autopilot driver might encounter. And Tesla’s spokespeople were quick to point out that the Manhattan environment was pretty much the exact opposite of what the system was designed for, namely monotonous highway commuting. But as unsettling as it may have been to turn the controls over to a system that Tesla still describes as being in “beta” testing, Autopilot proved itself to be up to the task of handling stop-and-go traffic without getting confused or seriously scaring anyone in the car.
Version 7.0 software will be available for download to current Model S owners this week. Roughly 60,000 cars, built in or after September 2014, will be eligible for full Autopilot features, a $2,500 upgrade, while the other features of the new software—automatic parallel parking, side collision warning, and an update to the visual layout of the driver’s instrument cluster—are free.
So, clearly, this isn’t the fully-autonomous self-driving car that seemingly all of the major automaker (and several Silicon Valley tech firms) are working on. But it’s a capable step in that direction, offering autonomous motoring without the 15-second time limit so many other systems require. As for our fully-self-driving future? That’s still a little ways off.
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