Using Autopilot Requires Full Driver Attention

Autopilot Off-Ramp Confusion

Using Tesla’s Autopilot, particularly the new ‘Navigate on Autopilot’ feature, requires the driver pay attention at all times and have their hands on the wheel.  Similar to an airline pilot that must fully understand the limitations of an airplane’s autopilot system and be able to handle exceptions quickly, a Tesla driver must learn the limitations of Autopilot and be prepared to take over at a moment’s notice.

In addition, it’s important to remember that Autopilot is still very much a ‘beta’ product and as an AI / machine learning system, has not yet learned as much as even a novice human driver might understand.

Here’s a perfect example of how Autopilot, in this case ‘Navigate on Autopilot’ on a Model 3, confused an emergency exit with the actual intended off-ramp exit a bit further down the road.  Since ‘Navigate on Autopilot’ will automatically turn on the blinker and exit on direct freeway off-ramps, there is a danger that the Autopilot system might confuse something that looks like an exit off-ramp with the actual exit, as in this case.

The lesson here is that drivers using Tesla’s Autopilot system (especially the new ‘Navigate on Autopilot’), must deeply familiarize themselves with the functionality and understand the limitations. In fact, when on Autopilot you should be prepared to take over at any moment if, for whatever reason, the car suddenly veers in one direction or another.

In some way, driving with Autopilot on requires more vigilance and expertise than normal since you’re, in essence, learning a completely different way to drive with your ‘AI co-pilot’ than you would if you are driving by yourself manually.  Each one presents it’s own benefits and safety risks.

Some Autopilot Safety Tips:

  • Do not use on city streets – This goes without saying, but it’s extremely dangerous to use Autopilot on city streets.  It’s only intended for freeway or highway use.  It’s far too easy for something to suddenly pop out into the street (like a bicyclist or pedestrian), or more likely, you forget to stop at a stop sign, stop light or intersection.
  • Hands on the wheel – Always keep your hand (or at least one hand) on the wheel.  Why? If the car suddenly wants to veer in one direction or another, you can quickly grip the wheel to prevent it, as needed.
  • Pay attention to the road – Remember that at freeway speeds (above 50 MPH), automatic emergency braking will not engage for stationary objects in your path (mainly to prevent false positives and sudden braking that could lead to rear-end accidents).  For example, if the car in front of you suddenly swerves out of the way to avoid an object in your path, you must take over to avoid an accident.  Autopilot cannot handle or predict every scenario which is why you still need to keep your eyes on the road.
  • Extra caution with lane changes – The lane changing functionality is great, but there have been many cases where the vehicle thinks it’s OK to change the lane, begins the lane change and then suddenly jerks back to the original lane (potentially causing an accident with nearby cars).  Why? In some cases when you signal drivers in your intended lane may not slow down (or even speed up).  It’s best to only change lanes when the target lane is clear and the vehicles in that lane are not closing the gap too quickly.
  • Careful with lane merges – Currently with HW2 (AP2) and version 9, the vehicle will generally aggressively and suddenly try to center itself in a merging lane.  This can cause confusion, so hold the wheel and pay attention to lane merges and merging traffic in general.
  • Keep your distance – It’s best to keep the Autopilot follow distance of 2 and higher to prevent sudden braking when the car in front of you slows down.  Traffic braking on Autopilot is still fairly abrupt and may cause the car behind you to rear-end you if you’re not careful.