True driverless cars are still a few years away from becoming a reality on our roads, but the Tesla Autopilot system gives us a taste of what hands-free future motoring might be like. Both the good and the bad.
Tesla Autopilot is a pimped up cruise control system
Included with the October 2015 Tesla Version 7.0 software update, the Tesla Autopilot function doesn’t turn the amazing Model S into a fully autonomous, self-driving car. But it’s a step towards that end — a pimped up cruise control that does considerably more than just maintain your speed.
Autopilot enables the Model S to steer within a lane, change lanes with a tap of an indicator signal and intelligently manage your speed. To do so, the system relies on data from a forward radar, forward-looking camera, GPS, plus 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors that are positioned around the car, sensing 16 feet in every direction.
Thanks to a high-precision digitally-controlled electric assist braking system, Autopilot can move with traffic, speeding up and slowing down to actively avoid collisions.
“It really is eerie at first,” writes Michael Ballaban on Jalopnik, “to be sitting in the driver’s seat and see the wheel moving itself. You see massive trucks to the left, and suicidal taxis to the right, and you know, you just know, that you’re going to smash into one of them…
“But you don’t. In the dash in front of you, the car actually gives you a display of what its onboard computer is seeing. You see displays of ultrasonic sensors firing off to the left and right of you, you see a generic illustration of the car in front of you halfway out of its own lane, and the car essentially reassures you – it’s alright, I’ve got it, I see the chaotic trash soup surrounding us, and you’re not going to hit anything.”
Of course, the system isn’t perfect and Tesla is at pains to point out that it should only be used when “conditions are clear” and that the person behind the wheel (even if they’re not holding it) is “still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car.”
Tesla suggests drivers keep their hands on the wheel
The release of Autopilot has shown the potential benefits and the potential dangers of autonomous driving systems. For example, Carl Reese, Deena Mastracci, and Alex Roy used the software in a Model S P85D “96 percent of the time” to drive from New York to LA — coast-to-coast in 57 hours, 48 minutes.
Elsewhere, there have been reports that a Florida man was caught speeding while driving on Autopilot, while some YouTube videos show Autopiloted vehicles swerving towards oncoming traffic. In both cases, the drivers seem to have played fast and loose with Tesla’s instructions, ignoring safety advice that suggests drivers keep their hands on the wheel.
Although Elon Musk has said that Autopilot is still in beta, perhaps the real danger here isn’t self-driving technology itself. It might be us, our sky-high expectations and our constant refusal to read the instructions. — Dean Evans (@evansdp)