First autopilot experience

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Owning a pre-autopilot Model S from early 2014, i’ve been living vicariously through the Tesla and TMC forums watching the evolution of autopilot. Finally after several non-autopilot loaners over the last several months I got a new (<550 miles!) S85 loaner with autopilot hardware on it and got to play with some of the features.

Autopilot State

Autopilot settingsAs of the current software in the 6.2 (2.5.21) era, autopilot is a bit of a generous term for what the Model S can currently do. In theory the same car/hardware will be able to do much more some day, but for today it has these capabilities:

  • It can detect current speed limit and notify/indicate it on the speedometer.
  • It has adaptive cruise control that adjusts to speed of cars in front
  • It has overtake acceleration
  • It has lane departure and blind spot warnings
  • It has collision avoidance
  • It has auto high beams which also come with the autopilot hardware.

I’m not going to cover all these in depth, so i’ll touch briefly on a few and cover the one of most interest to me in more depth. But before I do, what isn’t there?

Missing features

The current autopilot doesn’t do any steering. It will not keep you in your lane and it will not swerve to avoid an obstacle (but it will brake). It will also not park itself, or come when called. Basically anything that needs it to steer itself isn’t in the current software. There are many other cars on the road today that have more functionality in the steering area than Tesla currently does.

Another notable missing thing for me was the inability to have cruise control track the current speed limit — you can set a static cruise speed and have it go to that speed or the speed of the car in front of you but you can’t have it adjust as the speed limit goes up and down. I get the no-steering-in-this-version bit, but this part was more disappointing.

The lack of speed-limit adjusting cruise control was disappointing.

The system also does not stop for stop signs, red lights, etc so you very much need to be in control of the car at all times.

Speed Limit Warning

Speed Limit WarningWith the speed limit warning you can control whether its enabled, what kind of notification you get and you can tweak the number it warns you at. For my testing I had it set to 5mph over the speed limit. While I wish this was tied to the cruise control, I really liked this feature and it worked better than I thought it would.

I drove for 90 minutes on back roads through many towns and it consistently had the right speed limit when I would have been unsure in some areas. There’s a slight delay for the adjustment after the speed limit changes but within about 10 seconds the new speed limit is used for the warning threshold. As you go over the speed limit threshold, after the initial warning, the blue analog speed indicator turns white.

I prefer the mode where it pops up the speed limit sign on your speedometer when you exceed your threshold. The audible ding that can also accompany that gets old fast.

Lane Departure Warning

This feature is a slight vibration and buzzing sound as you get close to the lines on the road. It works at non-highway speeds but you don’t really know when its able to work or not. So sometimes it may help, other times it may not. The vibration and noise is very slight and the car does not correct you back into the lane. This feature is currently pretty lame and will hopefully improve when they add the steering controls.

Blind Spot/Collision Avoidance

Blind Spot WarningI hadn’t intended on testing this area of functionality with my loaner but I had the adaptive cruise control going and as it caught up to the car in front it got confused and treated it as an impending collision. I didn’t have time for a picture of the screen but it applied the breaks aggressively but not too much. It’s very nice to know that it has my back and is watching for problems.

My biggest concern with this feature is false alarms — heavy snow or fog or a big moth. I don’t know but if it goes into panic deceleration and there’s someone behind you not also reacting it could get ugly quickly. Time will tell how this works out and many vendors have a similar feature on their cars at this point.

During normal driving as people go into your blind spot on either the left or right of the car a little white indicator outside the speedometer will show. I found this to be helpful and not annoying.

Auto high beams

auto hig beamI drive a lot of back roads and deserted highways and I use my high beams any time I can. I’m very conscious of the impact to other drivers so i’m forever flipping them on and off.

Auto high beams on the Model S completely eliminates the need to think about it. It did as close to what I would have that i’d never have to think about high beams again if I had that feature on my car. I loved it and wish I had it on my car. Very cool.

Overtake acceleration

I read the instructions and got the concept but if this works its very slight and while I felt it a bit a few times, it wasn’t consistent for me. It seemed basically useless but I only had an hour to play with it on and off.

Traffic aware cruise control

I spent the most time playing with the automated cruise control. First, I have to start by admitting that i’m a cruise control junkie — I use it all the time. On highways, back roads, etc. Basically unless there’s a ton of traffic I have cruise control on. This helps me avoid speeding (far too easy in the Model S) and I love the way I can change cruise control speed on the Model S.

With the traffic aware cruise control you pick the following distance you’re comfortable with by twisting the cruise control stalk. You have options from 1 to 7 with 7 being the furthest away from the car in front.

On the back roads ranging from 25mph to 50mph a setting of 7 was a bit far from the car in front of me while I was moving but I found that the reaction time of the cruise control was slow and it brakes heavily as cars slow down in front.

The software is behaving like there’s a firm distance between you and the car in front and aggressively slows down if the car in front aggressively slows, even if there’s a large buffer. While the gap closes up if you come to a stop to a more reasonable stopping distance in traffic, the braking behavior had me not wanting to try it at lower settings. The slow reaction time by the system is what set off their collision avoidance system one time.

Even at a setting of 7 I had a few moments where I knew the system was going to stop but was afraid the guy behind me was going to plow into my rear. This behavior needs to be changed.

You set your speed just like you do on the non-autopilot cars, the difference is that is the maximum speed it will go if it can. If it can’t it will follow the speed of the car in front at your follow distance. The system has a number of displays:

Cruise ModesAs a reminder for the pictures the little hat on the speedometer is the currently set cruise control speed. The new white solid or dashed line is what it thinks the current speed limit is — solid if its sure, dashed if its not sure or changing.

If a traffic stop is brief it won’t go into hold mode and will immediately go back to following the car in front when it starts moving again (awesome for creeping traffic!). If the stop is longer you need to tell it to resume the cruise by pressing the accelerator pedal, or by using the cruise resume function on the stalk.

I much preferred the cruise resume from the steering wheel as it avoids me goosing the accelerator and it I felt it easier to trigger as I saw cars starting to move ahead. It didn’t feel natural to press the accelerator pedal when the car in front hasn’t moved yet, but I was quickly comfortable telling the cruise to resume as things started to move ahead but before the car in front of me started — it primes the system and avoids that awkward hesitation you get if you wait for the guy in front of you to go before you start the resume process. Even if you start the cruise resume early your car won’t move until the car in front of you moves.

High Speed CruiseOn the highway the experience is much smoother. You can, for example, set your cruise control at 90 (not recommended!) (which happens to be the maximum Tesla will let you set it too BTW) and then just pick how fast you go by picking which lane you’re in. You want to go fast, pick the left lane and you’ll do 90 or as fast as the fastest car there (again not recommended). You want to be more reasonable sit in the middle lane.

Overall I really like the traffic aware cruise control system. On the back roads it’s a bit choppy still for my tastes and i’d be constantly fiddling with it. There were several times when it got confused or stuck as people slowed down and turned off and cruise didn’t resume. Also as roads split or lanes merged it also had difficulties. On the highway or in traffic it’s a real gift for the driver.

Summary

The new functionality on the loaner car was very cool and generally worked well. The nature of the autopilot hardware makes it prohibitively expensive for Tesla to offer it as an upgrade and the trade in market along with depreciation on your current car means an upgrade by trade would cost on the order of $30,000. That’s a lot to pay for the functionality above. Newer cars come with a number of other new benefits too. For me it was great to get a glimpse into the future and what my next car will have someday. Meanwhile i’m still loving my Model S just as it is (well, when I get it back from a drive unit replacement, but thats another story).

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