The Autopilot mode combines four features: auto steer, auto lane change, auto park and side collision avoidance. These elements, working in concert with adaptive cruise control, enable the most sophisticated form of semi-autonomous driving on the market.
(TNS) -- The semi started to roll half of its 18 wheels over the line into our lane. Normally, I might've sped up, slowed down, changed lanes, honked or cursed. This time, I did nothing but watch.
I watched the steering wheel turn on its own, watched the Model S veer to the edge of our lane, watched as the truck went back to its lane and watched as the autopilot feature righted the Model S P90D. During it all, I kept my hands in my lap and my feet on the floor.
As with parenting, I didn't think I was ready for self-driving cars until it happened. And, though Tesla's autopilot is an advanced driver's-assistance feature more than a fully autonomous car, the technology is life changing, exciting and scary. Like parenting.
As much as I'd like to gush about the 0-60 mph time of 2.8 seconds, the breathtaking, gut-dropping, shriek-inducing linear acceleration of over 713 pound-feet of torque (and 762 horsepower), I'm here to address a software update.
Version 7.0, to be exact.
The latest over-the-air update from the tech company that makes cars consists of four features: auto steer, auto lane change, auto park and side collision avoidance. These features, working in concert with adaptive cruise control, enable the most sophisticated form of semi-autonomous driving on the market.
Adaptive cruise control should be familiar to people who upgraded a technology package on their recent new-car purchase. The driver sets the cruise to the desired speed, then sets the distance it should stay behind the lead car, ranging from one car length to five. When the lead car slows down, adaptive cruise automatically slows down by the same speed. When the lead car moves out of your lane or speeds back up, adaptive cruise moves back up to the set speed without the driver ever needing to press the brake or accelerator.
Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, in Tesla-ese, is activated by the secondary stalk on the left side of the steering column. The car senses when it can be used and activates a gray cruise control symbol on the left side of the speedometer. When you click the stalk, the symbol turns blue and you can take your feet off the gas.
Cruise must be activated to launch autopilot. When the system senses that autopilot can be used, meaning that it can clearly read the lines in the road, a gray steering wheel symbol will appear to the right of the speedometer. Double-click the secondary stalk, both symbols are blue, and you can take your hands off the wheel.
Auto lane change is somewhat of a misnomer because you still have to do something, you can't just will the car to change lanes. Not yet. When autopilot is activated, hold down the primary stalk/turn indicator for a good 5 to 6 clicks and the steering wheel shifts into the lane indicated. If it senses approaching cars in the blind spot, it won't execute the move and will command you to take over the wheel.
It's best used to move away from an approaching off-ramp or on-ramp, where the separating or merging lines can confuse the system. If the highway is well marked, the system stays the course without interruption. If the lines are muddled, the system asks you to put your hands on the wheel in case it can't decode the intended direction. It figured it out every time.
Side collision avoidance uses the 12 sensors surrounding the car to decipher not just road lines but surrounding traffic. The car appears in red (our test model color) on the vehicle display in the instrument cluster, and the lead car appears as a blue icon if it is nearby or gray if at a distance. The sensors light up on the display car when it detects a blind spot presence, side presence or any other presence. No obnoxious dinging or loud alarms; when the system demands the driver's attention, it emits a mild ding, not unlike a social media alert on a smart phone.
Other automakers, ranging from Mercedes to Hyundai, have similar lane keep and adaptive cruise options. Tesla's is as easy to use as cruise control and takes no advanced understanding of auto technology. It's all on the steering column and digital instrument cluster. Everything is activated through the secondary stalk. The display is clear, distinct and uncluttered. You don't need to access the peerless 17-inch touch screen that is in the center stack.
Using autopilot is all about trust, like letting your kid drive. You've got to be ready for it and acclimate to the reality that you're partially letting go of control. On the first night testing it out, in the rain, going 70 mph on a highway where the left lane marking vanished into the cement dividing wall at a curve, I freaked out and took over the wheel. The initial suspicion, the unfamiliarity with the technology, was gone after the first day. Once I understood its strengths and weaknesses, I wanted to show off my boy to other drivers, hands free, pointing proudly at the wheel, check this kid out.
When I lost confidence, it was not due to technology but to its troublesome partner: humanity. It took overriding patience to wait and see how the system would respond to the trucker. Other times, approaching on-ramps with a merging car evidently incapable of considering the existence of other cars, I would've handled it differently. Approaching stopping traffic, the car brakes a little harder than a human would, because a human knows this traffic isn't going anywhere ever. If braking is too hard, then the car be set at greater lengths, but then you have to suffer the fools who think weaving in and out of lanes in traffic gives them an advantage. In a construction zone at 45 mph, with new shifting lane patterns and overlapping line markings at a bridge, I took over.
Tesla wants to make sure people understand that autopilot does not mean the car can drive itself, despite so many reckless driving videos uploaded to YouTube, including but not limited to one driver seated in and filming from the back seat.
"It's in beta mode," said Alexis Georgeson, spokesperson for Tesla. "We're supposed to have a rational thinking human being who's ready to take over at any time."
Autopilot is only available between 18 mph and 80 mph, unless there is a car in front of you, then it's available up to 80 mph. It is optimal for highway cruising or highway stop-and-go traffic.
It can be used around town, but it has trouble at intersections where there are no lines. Additionally, there has to be a car in front of you because the system cannot read stop signs or stoplights.
"Each (software) rollout will incrementally make the car more autonomous," Georgeson said.
Tesla updates its software every three to six months, roughly, using over-the-air updates, same as a smartphone. As long as the car is in park, the driver can update it via a Wi-Fi connection or the car's LTE data connection. Tesla owners who bought their car in September 2014 or after, when all the hardware for autopilot and subsequent systems was put in place, woke up in October 2015 to find that their car could now somewhat drive itself.
The next software update may include the ability to read stoplights and stop signs. In the not-so-distant future, a driver may be able to set a destination from home to work and not have to "drive" at all.
The irony with the ludicrous all-wheel-drive all-electric P90D is that it is the most fun-to-drive car on the road. In stop-and-go traffic, however, it's more enjoyable to sit back and do nothing but watch it drive itself.
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