Innovation

Tesla Autopilot: Behind the wheel of the world's first AI-powered driving experience

TechRepublic's Hope Reese drove an Autopilot-enabled Tesla Model S and evaluated the most impressive features as well as the common misperceptions about the technology.


When I arrived at Tesla Headquarters in Palo Alto earlier this year, I had been writing about the autonomous driving world for months, talking to automakers, artificial intelligence experts, lawyers, regulators, and Autopilot drivers, trying to understand what it all meant. But, I still wondered how it felt to drive (or ride) in a car equipped with an autonomous feature.

A Tesla representative walked me over to a Model S sitting in the parking lot. She showed me a few of the features of the car, including the built-in cameras and the new look of the car, with a smoother front end. And then, she welcomed me to get into the driver's seat.

At that moment, with no training, I had my first experience behind the wheel of a semi-autonomous car. It was a beautiful morning—clear, sunny and 62 degrees—and before I knew it, we were off.

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Tesla's Autopilot has been the subject of intense debate, especially since this spring. In May, Joshua Brown died on a Florida Highway while his car was engaged in Autopilot—the first known fatality since the technology had been released. For many who were already worried about the limits of the technology, the accident reinforced a view that Tesla had stepped too far too soon, introducing technology on real-world roads that had not yet been proven.

For others, especially technologists and Tesla owners, it was merely a matter of time before something like this would happen, and they were less likely to blame the technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk restated Tesla's record of safety, emphasizing the fact that this was the first death in 130 million miles driven by Autopilot, while the US average is 1.3 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, according to a 2015 report by the US National Safety Council.

SEE: Tesla's Master Plan 2.0: AI experts, auto insiders, and Tesla customers weigh in

But while many factors were at play in the accident—the driver was reportedly not paying attention to the road and the tractor-trailer the car collided with had made an ill-advised left-turn across a high-speed highway—the incident brought Tesla, and the concept of self-driving cars, into the global spotlight.

There has been lots of confusion about what Autopilot actually is. Even the name, which some believe implies greater autonomy than the car is capable of, is somewhat vague. Here's what it's not: A self-driving car.

Autopilot is more similar to advanced cruise control than the driverless cars of the future. It is a high tech feature available on newer models of the Tesla Model S and the Tesla Model X. It's a semi-autonomous feature meant for highway driving. In Autopilot mode, the car can drive itself (like cruise control) and adjust speed, detect objects 500 feet ahead and brake accordingly, set off alerts if objects around the car come too close, and even switch lanes.

SEE: Tesla's new Autopilot makes a big bet on radar; Musk said system would have prevented deadly crash

When I climbed into an Autopilot-enabled Tesla Model S, the car's door handles automatically retracted—for aerodynamics, the representative told me. First order of business? Check out the dashboard. The Tesla felt more like a giant iPhone than a car, with a huge touchscreen display with the tire pressure, electric charge supply, and all other settings. You have a "profile," and can set your own seat and mirror adjustments, which the car will learn and revert to.

I started by navigating around the parking lot—in regular-driving mode. Then I took the exit for Highway 280, heading south. Once on the highway, the representative told me to pull the left-hand lever toward me. With that one move, Autopilot was engaged.

At 70 miles per hour, the car was driving itself.

The feeling was thrilling. It was as if a pair of ghost hands were on the wheel, carefully guiding it back and forth as the car sailed down the gently curving highway. It wasn't rush hour, but there was still a bit of traffic. To keep a safe distance between myself and the other cars ahead, I could tell Autopilot how many car-lengths I wanted between the Tesla and the car in front. I set it to seven, the max.

SEE: Photos: TechRepublic test drives Tesla Autopilot (TechRepublic)

But even if I had just set to one car length, Keely told me, it would know to give us more space, and would adjust accordingly.

For me, the most impressive thing, was experiencing the Tesla switch lanes by itself. With one touch of the turn signal, the car prepared to move into the fast lane.

I freaked out as soon as I hit the turn signal, though—out of the corner of my eye, I spotted another car speeding up on the left.

"Don't worry," the Tesla rep said, "the car knows when it's safe to turn."

The ride continued smoothly. Any time I removed my hands from the wheel, there was an alert to put my hands back on (in Autopilot 8.0, the feature will automatically shut off if drivers do not heed warnings to keep hands on the wheel). It would also beep if the car was going over the speed limit. The only time we turned Autopilot off—it can be instantly disengaged by jerking on the wheel or pressing the brake—was during a complicated intersection. Autopilot sees objects and knows road markings, but it does not see traffic lights.

The initial thrill dissolved. Although I often hear that drivers acclimate to Autopilot quickly, the Tesla representative mentioned that I seemed unusually calm. It could be that I was a bit desensitized to the technology, after writing about it for months. Or perhaps I have an unusually high level of trust. Either way, I felt my body relax a bit as the car sped down the freeway.

Immediately after the drive, I felt surprised at how easy the experience had been. I had expected a short training, or even a little test drive around the parking lot, before taking this $70,000 machine out on the highway.

The first feeling of pulling the lever to engage Autopilot was truly exciting, and I will never forget that feeling—by comparison, when I took a drive in the back seat of Ford's fully-autonomous car several months later, I was underwhelmed. The car wasn't going very fast, and the risks were minimal.

The most impressive part of Tesla Autopilot was the car's ability to switch lanes with the simple press of the turning signal. For me, the mechanics behind this move were complicated. Would another car be barrelling into my lane, and if so, how long would we wait until the car had passed? How quickly should the Tesla switch lanes? Would it adjust speed once it had moved into the next lane, if appropriate? This was the one move that made me feel that the car was, truly, able to make an intelligent decision on its own.

When news broke of Joshua Brown's Autopilot-enabled Tesla crashing into a semi, I realized how many many people didn't understand the difference between a car with autonomous features (such as a Tesla Autopilot) and a driverless car. Before my own ride, Tesla reinforced that this was not a self-driving car, and that it was my job to remain alert while operating the car in this mode.

The reality is, cars with semi-autonomous features are already on the road. Not only Tesla's Autopilot, but Ford has adaptive cruise control in its 2017 Fusion Energi, which allows the car to adjust speed, brake, and restart—among many other examples. And cars that are driving themselves (albeit, with a safety operator in the front) are already being used by the public, in Singapore's taxi fleet, and in Uber rides in Pittsburgh.

The New York Times' portrayal of the accident, and the reaction of many I spoke to about Brown's death, illustrate how fearful people can be about a new technologies—especially ones they haven't yet tried for themselves. It also reinforces the importance of understanding the terminology and context around autonomous vehicle technology.

The US Department of Transportation recently unveiled its first-ever guidelines for the development of autonomous vehicles. And Tesla's Autopilot mode shows how close we are to self-driving cars—Musk predicts the technology will be ready in 2018. But, despite how far the technology has come, societal acceptance, key to mainstream adoption, will likely take much longer.

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Tesla Model S with Autopilot

Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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