Revisiting Tesla’s Autopilot

Tesla Model S - rear quarterI posted a while ago about testing Tesla’s autopilot at 70mph… well, about someone else testing autopilot at 70mph. At that time, I hadn’t tried it myself but now I have and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. That might sound ridiculous, but let me explain what it was like.

I booked a short test drive at the Gadget Show Live in Birmingham and was taken out onto the local roads by a Tesla representative. I’d driven a Model S before but not since they had been upgraded to include 4-wheel-drive or autopilot, so I was curious to see what had changed.

I won’t talk much about the 4-wheel-drive except to say it does massively improve the traction and make it possible to carry out some impressive moves even on poor roads. I will also say the Tesla rep demonstrated that… I would have been too keenly aware that I was in a very expensive car to risk doing anything too dramatic!

The autopilot is what’s really captured my imagination, though. It works in two stages – pull one of the steering wheel stalks towards you and the car goes into adaptive cruise control. In this mode, it scans the road ahead to make sure you stay a certain distance from other cars. In our case, we set the car to travel at 70mph but were following a car doing about 40, so we tootled along the road while the Tesla’s sensors kept us a safe distance from the car in front.

Pull the cruise control stalk again and the car goes into autopilot, scanning the road ahead to make sure it stays within the lane (and, of course, still keeping you a safe distance from other cars). This was where it got very, very, strange; the Tesla rep told me to take my hands off the wheel and just let the car do its thing. I can’t describe the feeling of being in the driving seat of a moving car that I’m not actually driving! It faithfully followed some gentle curves in the road, and even navigated its way past a sliproad where, I would have thought, the abundance of lane markings could have confused it.

When the time comes to change lane, the autopilot can handle that too. Indicate over and you are prompted to put your hands on the wheel in case you need to take control in a pinch. I just had a light touch on the wheel, and it turned itself… again, a very odd feeling. Once we were in the other lane, the adaptive cruise control realised there was nothing in front of us anymore and we took off down the road with the autopilot doing its job to keep us safely in the lane again. A couple of seconds later, indicate left, touch the wheel, and it pulls back in again.

Even in that small time test driving the Model S, I was hooked. The whole experience of driving such a powerful and high-tech car is genuinely intoxicating (I only wish I could have had longer with it!) but it’s the autopilot that’s really stuck in my mind. Again, I can’t describe the feeling of sitting in the driving seat of a car and having it, essentially, drive itself. If this is an indication of how motoring technology is going, I’m very much looking forward to the future.

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